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Dorm Storm: Yale’s campus sees a flurry of political activity—but to what end?

A knock at the door woke Spencer Hagaman ’21. Still dazed from his interrupted nap, he wondered who could be trying to reach his suitemates on a Friday afternoon. 

“It wasn’t light tapping,” Spencer said. “The oak doors in Franklin are very thick. It was definitely audible—it echoed through the room.”

As soon as Spencer opened his door, he was greeted by a group of students brimming with enthusiasm that did not match his own sleepy reluctance. Some were wearing Bernie 2020 shirts. Others sported oversized campaign buttons reading “Bernie for America,” or carried “I Wrote the Damn Bill!” flyers in hand. All carried an immovable conviction that their candidate is the best choice for America’s 46th presidency, and they were determined to convert others. 

“Hi, we’re Students for Bernie,” the group said, before introducing themselves individually. “Do you have a moment to talk about the 2020 election?”

“Dorm-storming” aims to reach voters where they are—literally—by bringing campaign literature to the doorsteps of Yale students. As the Democratic primary elections advance throughout the 50 states, groups like Yale for Bernie are experimenting with methods typically reserved for canvassing strangers. This student organizing tactic is not limited to Sanders supporters—Yale students have formed political groups campaigning on behalf of several different Democratic candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. 

With the road to the 2020 Democratic National Convention on July 13 still bumpy, student advocates hope that face-to-face conversations with their peers will compel them to reconsider their preexisting political affiliations. 

Both the Democratic primary and the general election give greater influence to some states than others, making it strategically difficult to canvass students from all over the country. Student advocates have spent hours telling peers that their voices matter.

But to many busy Yalies like Spencer, who often have already decided their vote, the strategic end of these strenuous efforts is often unclear. “I kind of just nodded along and agreed with them for a little while, and after about five minutes or so they left.”

***

The friendly competition between Democratic canvassers began as soon as the Class of 2023 stepped on campus. 

The fall extracurricular bazaar is notoriously overwhelming, even when students are not preparing for an election year. Amid the claustrophobic arrangement of student groups recruiting new members and the cacophony of underclassmen navigating the tables, advocates hoped to turn first-years to an issue beyond Yale: national politics.

Eva Quittman ’23, a first-year member of Students for Bernie, admitted her lack of political engagement before coming to Yale’s campus. However, upon arrival, her peers’ advocacy persuaded her to become involved. In an interview with The Politic, Eva said, “A friend of mine who was in Morse and also a first-year had gotten involved with Students for Bernie, so I got involved when I saw them at the extracurricular fair.” 

For many campus groups, emphasizing political primaries is a key way to recruit members. Both first-years newly acquainted with politics at Yale and older students whose time on campus has been shaped by the Trump administration have felt the need to make their voices heard. 

As Liam Elkind ’21, Elections Coordinator for the Yale College Democrats, explained, “We spent our entire college career living under this presidency and so the ability to actually have a voice now…is essential. We are emphasizing [the 2020 elections] in our recruitment strategy.”

Student organizations have crafted campaign strategies aimed at both increasing their own coalitions’ membership and convincing students that their personal political preferences help determine the nation’s political trajectory. Groups’ method of advocacy is two-fold: asking students to refine their ideological convictions and register to vote. These intentions have led to a wide range of methods, including hosting debate watch parties, tabling in student libraries and dining halls, and knocking on doors. Their actions remain guided by the belief that this advocacy will help reorient Yale’s political compass.

***

After every campaign event he attends, Trent Spiner, a reporter for Politico, gives his phone number to at least a dozen attendees. The morning of January 14, his phone would not stop buzzing. Just the night before, Sanders and Warren, the latter of whom has since dropped out of the race, engaged in a now-infamous debate exchange. Warren alleged that Sanders expressed sexist beliefs in a private December 2018 meeting. “I thought a woman could win,” she said on the stage. “[Sanders] disagreed.”

National news capitalized on the confrontation, citing it as evidence that the campaigns’ mutual respect had disintegrated. Media outlets portrayed it as the end of an uneasy alliance between “Bernie Bros” and “Warren Warriors.” 

To Spiner, the feud is indisputably genuine. He pointed to increasing animosity between Sanders and Warren supporters following the debate as evidence. Many Sanders supporters blamed Warren for playing the “woman card” and expressed reluctance towards voting for her. On the other hand, Spiner claims some Warren supporters  would not be “voting for an old white guy” and hold Sanders accountable for the sexist comment. 

On Yale’s campus, however, this kind of reaction was hardly noticeable. Jordan Cozby ’20, former co-president of Yale Students for Warren, didn’t see a “drastic shift” in campus dialogue in response to Warren’s allegations. For better or worse, most students at Yale seemed to be focused on policy and ideological differences between the candidates, rather than Sanders’ and Warren’s rhetorical tit-for-tat. 

“I’m typically resistant to the ‘media manufacturing’ arguments,” Jordan said. “I don’t think that they have the nuance to do so.” Instead, he thinks that media behavior is more indicative of a state of discourse in which “the loudest voices are those which are heard clearest.”

David Edimo ’21, the other former Yale Students for Warren co-president, agreed, pointing to Warren and Sanders’ friendship as evidence that “the extent to which [the feud] illustrates a rift has been way overplayed. At the end of the day, most people who support [one] candidate will be willing to vote for the other candidate.”

According to Ryan Dougherty FES ’21, a founding member and campus organizer for Yale Students for Bernie, ideological differences between Sanders and Warren often do not play a major role in students’ “rank-order preferences” of major contenders for the Democratic nomination.

“I’ve canvassed a few dorms now: Warren supporters will usually say that they actually like Bernie, and Bernie supporters will say that they like Warren,” Ryan said. 

Nonetheless, Ryan believes that there are enough “substantial differences” even between candidates with similar platforms, including Sanders and Warren, to warrant an informed discussion about students’ political and ideological preferences. For instance, many Sanders supporters say that foreign policy is the main reason for their choice, while some Warren supporters prioritized her policies on childcare and universal education.

It is unclear whether the media has overstated the division in the electorate between Sanders and Warren, or if college students simply have different priorities compared to  the general public when choosing a nominee.

In response to assertions that the feud is overblown, Spiner explained, “It’s easy for someone at Yale to sit on campus and pontificate about what they think is happening, but there’s a difference between opinion and fact, which is what reporters are tasked to discover.”

***

On February 8th, members of the Yale College Democrats piled into a bus headed for New Hampshire to canvass for the candidate of their choice—three Buttigieg supporters signed up, 15 for Sanders, and 53 for Warren. Liam shared that the motivation for campaigning in New Hampshire was partially due to New Hampshire’s status as an early primary state.

“It holds this prized position above all the other states as a bellwether for who has momentum, who has strength, [and] who has strong organizing capabilities,” he said. Liam also emphasized the relative urgency of the New Hampshire primary, stating that despite the late primary date in Connecticut, students “wanted to get started early.”

This year’s Connecticut primary is on April 28th, almost three months after the Iowa caucus that kicked off the Democratic primary season. 

Connecticut’s 60 Democratic delegates will be apportioned after 2,794 delegates from other states are already determined. While most students can vote in their home states with absentee ballots, Yale’s geographically diverse student body makes mobilizing students difficult, since election dates are scattered throughout the upcoming months.

Indeed, some Yale voters from early or swing states have strategically focused on their  home elections rather than Connecticut’s. 

Bryce Morales ’23, a student from New Hampshire, shared that canvassing and political action at Yale somewhat informed his voting decision but only because he actively sought political engagement on campus. In a conversation with The Politic, Bryce described his experiences phone banking with the Yale for Pete campaign organizers. He also emphasized “a long conversation” with an organizer from Yale Students for Bernie about his personal transition from supporting Sanders in 2016 to Buttigieg in 2020.

To Eva, campaigning in Connecticut is important too: “Every state matters,” she said. “Even though they’re not the first state in the primary, every state has a say in the political process. We want to be sure that people are voting for a candidate they have confidence in.” 

Ultimately, Eva sees her efforts with Yale Students for Bernie as extending beyond the Sanders campaign. “It transcends just this one person, very much a movement and a set of ideas that will carry forward throughout time.”

Liam and the Yale Democrats left New Hampshire feeling confident that they had made their voices heard, but they’re not done yet. They plan to head to Philadelphia in March to register voters for the upcoming House election and to continue canvassing for their preferred candidates. “Traveling is fun,” Liam said, “and it’s exciting to talk to voters who aren’t from where you are. Making connections with different people is part of politics—getting to know people who are different from you.”

***

At the end of the day, students agree that the differences—though important—don’t run too deep. 

“As they operate on campus,” Jordan explained, “these campaigns…are really motivated to defeat Donald Trump and [bring about] systemic change.” He sees Sanders and Warren as having each been possible standard-bearers of a progressive future, but “think[s] people will unify [behind] whoever wins the nomination.”

Ryan, for one, “prefer[s] Bernie quite a lot.” He didn’t need to pause, though, before continuing: “But my God, I want Donald Trump out of office.”