When Candidates Visit

Big-league campaigning came to Allegheny College in 2004 with a visit from Vice President Dick Cheney. It was an exciting event, with political passions running high among Republicans and Democrats alike. It was also big news in the community: While William McKinley briefly attended Allegheny, no sitting president or vice president had ever before made a stop on our campus.

In retrospect, however, allowing the vice president to use our facilities was a mistake — one that colleges might consider as they field campaign requests for forthcoming midterm races in 2006, and presidential and other contests in 2008.

Allegheny College is located in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. With the state up for grabs in 2004, both presidential campaigns flooded the airwaves with advertisements and our streets with volunteers. Pennsylvania also received recurrent visits from the candidates, and their wives and other surrogates. Still it came as a surprise that Cheney would visit our small community of about 30,000.

In late September, the college administration received a request from the Bush-Cheney campaign to rent our gymnasium, the largest indoor space in the area. As director of the college’s Center for Political Participation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to fostering civic and political engagement, I was consulted. I suggested that it would be good for the area and good for the college. While Cheney might not receive a cozy reception from a significant portion of our campus population, the active, well-organized College Republicans would be thrilled — and would surely be irate if we turned down the request. I argued that the event would invigorate our students and be good for the wider community, improving town-gown relations. Furthermore, Allegheny College had no policy in place that would have justified denying rental of space for a private political event. A denial could easily have been interpreted as bias against the Republican campaign.

Setting aside my own political leanings, I held that it was the right thing to do. The chair of the faculty council was consulted, and he agreed. Without a standing policy, a denial to the Cheney campaign would be viewed as a partisan decision.

As news of the pending visit spread, several colleagues came into my office or sent irate e-mail messages arguing that we would be lending aid and comfort to Republicans. Allowing Cheney to use our gym would be tantamount to an endorsement, they said. I viewed that opposition as partisan griping — or intense antipathy toward Cheney in particular. Would they have reacted the same way if John Edwards had asked to use our facilities? Do we want our students to be engaged in politics, or just Democratic politics?

Cheney came to town on October 13 and held his town-hall-style meeting in our athletics facility, with 600 in attendance. It was a dramatic, exhilarating day. Supporters were animated and loud, and the opposition — out on the street abutting the gymnasium — was probably even louder and more spirited.

The local paper carried huge front-page headlines — “Historic Visit” — and devoted half of the front section to it. That Cheney made an unexpected stop at an elementary school near the campus, allowing children to shake hands with the vice president of the United States, seemed to make the day even more special.

But there was a catch: Like nearly all such stops during the Bush-Cheney campaign, it was a “ticketed” gathering. Through the advanced distribution of tickets, the Cheney team controlled who was allowed into the facility. Tickets were given to local GOP activists.

As for the college, 40 seats were made available through the College Republicans, handed out at their discretion. (Not wanting to suggest any sort of endorsement, I did not attend the event — nor did any top administrator of the college.)

The ticket distribution was disappointing but not surprising. As a student of electoral politics with considerable experience in the field myself, I realize that campaign operatives value community gatherings not just for the boost given to those in attendance, but for the pitch to the vastly larger TV-news audience. Why risk clouding the message of the day with a heckler or a protest? Ultimate control over all aspects of a campaign has become the mantra of new-style campaign professionals — one of many unfortunate turns in 21st-century electoral politics.

A piece in The Christian Science Monitor on September 27, 2004, suggested that both parties used ticketed events that year. “Those who [disrupt events] — such as during a Laura Bush speech this month in New Jersey or at a Kerry rally this summer in Flagstaff, Ariz. — get removed and sometimes charged with minor offenses,” the Monitor reported. But according to newspaper accounts like a report in the October 16, 2004, Des Moines Register, Republicans were the worse offenders.

On several occasions, those admitted to Bush and Cheney rallies were required to sign loyalty oaths. Many of those events were billed as “town-hall meetings,” suggesting some sort of old New England-style gathering where all are welcome to share their concerns. At several occasions would-be attendees were forced to remove buttons or T-shirts that hinted at opposition to the Bush ticket. According to the Register report, aggressive tactics, even by the Secret Service, were used to limit the admission or speech of nonsupporters at Bush-Cheney gatherings.

A Washington Post article on October 28, 2004, noted: “As Bush has traveled the United States during this political campaign, the Secret Service and local police have often handled public protests by quickly arresting or removing demonstrators, free-speech advocates say. In addition, access to Bush events has been unusually tightly controlled, and people who do not support Bush’s re-election have been removed.”

Like colleges across the country in 2004, Allegheny confronted a predicament: If we insisted on controlling the distribution of tickets, or even a portion of the tickets, the Cheney campaign would probably have switched the event to one of the many other colleges in the region. Our students would have been denied the chance to see the campaign firsthand, and the community would have been stung by the missed opportunity to have a sitting vice president visit the area.

But are closed events acceptable on a college campus? Does the desire to foster greater political participation compel colleges to play host to controlled campaign situations? If the events violate a core tenet of democratic society — the open and robust exchange of ideas in a public setting — then no.

Candidates are anxious to stifle public debate, to control their messages and artfully manipulate news content. Who, if not colleges, will challenge those undemocratic impulses? Colleges are not obligated to provide an arena and a bullhorn for a select few. How can institutions that strive to cultivate responsible citizens shrink from their own obligation to facilitate public speech? Our drive to engage students cannot trump our obligation to foster a robust exchange of ideas.

One way to reconcile the college’s goal of inclusiveness and the campaign’s goal of rewarding supporters is to set a reasonable limit on controlled tickets. Granting candidates half of the available seats and allowing the college to distribute the remaining tickets through an unbiased procedure like a lottery seems like a sensible compromise. It allows students of all political stripes, and college towns, to experience the excitement of democracy in action; but it also provides enough incentive for campaigns to locate their event on a campus before an audience that’s enthusiastic, if not unanimously so.

Realistically, candidates will shop around for those campuses that do not insist on even partial open access. One way around that is for colleges to band together and form an open-event alliance. The playing field would be level, and all candidates would understand the rules. They might choose to use campus facilities less, but then candidates know that they neglect young voters at their peril.

In the end it boils down to this: Closed, ticketed events are inconsistent with the mission of higher education and with the spirit of democracy.

Candidates on the campus? You bet. But with no strings attached.

Reprinted with permission.
http://chronicle.com, from the issue dated August 4, 2006.
Section: The Chronicle Review, Volume 52, Issue 48, Page B20.

Daniel M. Shea is a former professor of political science and former director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. He has written or edited 12 books on the American electoral process. Shea’s most recent project, Living Democracy (Prentice Hall, 2007), is an American government text designed to inspire students and help them experience the impact of government in their daily lives.