ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The political attitudes of students on Michigan college campuses tell two tales. The first is familiar to those following the Democratic presidential campaigns: outspoken fans of Hillary Clinton are a rarity, and support for Bernie Sanders is overwhelming. The second is less told, a tale of a diverse and open political conversation on campuses around the state, and of support that evens out between the two candidates among students who are more politically engaged.
“Everyone says Bernie runs college campuses, but I wouldn’t say there aren’t Hillary people, and there aren’t people who have been convinced to become Hillary people,” said Josh Martin, a sophomore and member of Students for Hillary at the University of Michigan. “There are a lot of people here and a lot of opinions represented.”
Sanders is expected to receive a boost from college voters in Michigan’s March 8 primary. He has spent the past week visiting the state’s college campuses: Michigan State University on Wednesday, Grand Valley State University on Friday and the University of Michigan on Monday. In CNN exits polls of voters through March 4, Sanders won the 18-24 years old demographic in nearly every state by margins of 30 to 60 points. He’s opened campaign offices next door to Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, both with over 50,000 students. Twitter and Yik Yak feeds are dotted with odes to democratic socialism and “political revolution.”
Clinton instead has focused her time in Michigan on Detroit, speaking to blue-collar workers at an automotive plant on Friday. Students supporting Clinton admit it’s sometimes frustrating to not be in a demographic that’s a priority to their candidate, but understand it’s a strategic necessity, and it’s working—Clinton is up by 20 points across the state in Real Clear Politics polling averages.
“It would be really nice” if Clinton spoke at Michigan State and other campuses, said Amelia Hallman, a freshman member of MSU Students for Hillary. “But I understand they’re trying to do it more strategically.”
What they do object to is the notion that Clinton has given up on college students. Though she may not have opened official campaign offices in Ann Arbor or East Lansing like Sanders has, members of Students for Hillary groups at MSU and UofM say campaign staffers have provided them everything they need. One campaign staffer for Michigan for Hillary uses her Ann Arbor home as a de facto headquarters for campaigning in the city and on UofM’s campus.
“Our group has gotten a lot of really good support, and the campus groups are well greased machines,” said Anushka Sarkar, a sophomore member of Students for Hillary at the University of Michigan. “We’re part of their network, and they’ve sent us pretty much anything we’ve asked them for.”
Some of the Sanders dominance derives simply from a bandwagon effect. Sardar said students who are less politically engaged are overwhelmingly Sanders supporters.
“Bernie is the Canada Goose of candidates,” said Grant Strobl, a University of Michigan sophomore who identifies as a Republican and voted for Republican Ted Cruz back home in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. “Everybody wants to have a Bernie sticker.”
But Laura Marsh, one of the founders of Students for Hillary at the University of Michigan, said for too many students, voting isn’t a priority. Those who casually support Sanders due to social pressures or other factors are less likely to vote.
Meanwhile, many students involved in campus campaigns also participate in get-out-the-vote efforts and other activities that increase political engagement. Focusing on those passionate enough to cast a ballot, the number of Sanders and Clinton supporters aren’t too dissimilar, Marsh believes.
And many of the students who are politically active enough to get involved in the campaigns have a motive that goes beyond their candidate—they believe in the need to get more students politically engaged.
“I don’t care who you vote for, to get your vote out, be heard, is essential,” said Joey Vanderbosch, an executive board member of MSU Students for Hillary.
Students backing Clinton say the hardest opposition to their efforts is among students who like Sanders simply because he isn’t Clinton. Sarkar remembers leaving a phone banking session wearing her Students for Hillary shirt one day, only to have a student yell at her from across the street: “Benghazi killer!”
University of Michigan sophomore Peter Donahue, from Lowell, Massachusetts, has supported Sanders since high school. “Him being president is more powerful as a political revolution.”
But Clinton backers on campus argue the support for Sanders won’t matter in the long run —they’re looking at the big picture.
“I’ve seen a lot of people over time that really supported (Sanders) that are slowly tiring of it,” said Hallman, the freshman social policy major at Michigan State. “I’ve heard of a lot of people switching to Hillary in that way.”
Martin, the University of Michigan Clinton supporter, is confident come November those now “feeling the Bern” will help carry the Democratic nominee to the White House—Clinton, of course.
“I think we’re going to pop a bottle on Jan. 20, 2017,” he said.