The Obama Campaign dominated college campuses this fall. There is no way around that. At my own campus, the University of Virginia, seeing Obama paraphernalia on my way to class became as common as seeing North Face fleeces. Thus, it was no surprise that voters under the age of 30 voted for Barack Obama 2 to 1. The youth voter turnout increased one percentage point to 18% from the 2004 presidential election.
But the youth vote is not a lost cause for conservatives. Ronald Reagan won it in 1984 and a conservative candidate can win it again. College campuses are a major battleground in the war of ideas and this election shows that conservatives on campus must become more effective in conveying their ideas. Countless stories have been written about how the Obama Campaign successfully used new technology to reach students who might not normally be interested in politics. Text messages, Facebook groups and Twitter diaries became successful political tools during this election cycle. Conservative students should embrace this new technology, but they should not ignore the importance of good messaging, sound policy and picking their battles. From my experience of four years of college and almost three years of law school at the University of Virginia, here are five ways that conservative students can become more effective on campus.
1. Build relationships with the school newspaper.
Conservatives should keep in mind the old Mark Twain adage, "Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel." Despite new technology, school newspapers still play an important role. School newspapers on large campuses are printed five days a week and are often the main daily source of information for college students. Many conservatives have started their own newspapers or magazines, but these usually are weekly, monthly or even quarterly publications. Regardless of if there is an alternative conservative paper or not, conservatives should develop relationships with the school newspaper and encourage other conservatives to join. This will likely lead to better balanced stories and more coverage of conservative events, which will help conservatives spread their ideas more broadly.
Hosting an articulate conservative speaker can reenergize the conservative movement on a college campus. Yet these speakers often only reach supporters as opponents do not attend. To become more effective, conservatives should co-sponsor debates with their opposition. By doing so, conservatives will have the opportunity to reach a wider diversity of students, including those who usually disagree with them, and possibly gain more supporters.
3. Address more parochial college issues.
Conservative students should pick issues directly affecting college campuses and work tirelessly on them. While students can add something to the debate on nuclear nonproliferation, international crime and the War in Iraq, most students are obviously not experts on these issues. Students are experts, however, on issues affecting college campuses. Students know how university policies can have impact upon their educational experience. Many conservative students have won arguments on speech codes, university funding of only liberal speakers and proposed new curriculum.
Who controls how student activity fees are distributed on college campuses? Often, it is a student elected to a position such as Vice President for Organizations. This person decides how much funding the University Democrats and College Republicans receive each year. Among others, student officers often make decisions about office allocation, what clubs to recognize and what speakers to host. Just as students should address university issues, they also should run candidates for these student positions.
5. Take responsibility for a conservative education.
Rather than just complain about the lack of classic conservative books in university curriculum, conservatives should read them on their own time and find others with whom to discuss these books. Students must educate themselves on conservatism to effectively educate others. Ultimately, and as always, conservative success rests on ideas--not slogans.