As a pre-lecture warmup clip from “The West Wing” TV show winds down, drawing laughs from students, professor Jack Pitney heads toward the front of his classroom at Claremont McKenna College.
“It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” Pitney jokingly says as he hands out an essay assignment to the two dozen students in his “American Presidency” class. “The time you finally have to put your money where your mouth is and tell me who’s going to win the presidential election” -- with the exact popular vote percentages for each candidate and a detailed electoral college breakdown, with supporting evidence.
“And if you say [President] Bush carries California, it’ll be a sign of the end of times,” says Pitney, a veteran government professor, as the students laugh again. “And I may have to give you an extension.”
At Claremont McKenna, a liberal arts college of 1,100 students and with a history of training budding politicians and public policy experts, there’s rarely a need to explain such jokes.
“Nobody here is disengaged,” Pitney said. “They wouldn’t be here if they were.”
Politics is to Claremont McKenna as physics is to Caltech. In one indication, Claremont McKenna was judged in the 2005 edition of Princeton Review’s “Best 357 Colleges” to have the most politically active students. The company ranks U.S. colleges and universities in various categories. The Claremont school also did well in such areas as financial aid, accessibility of professors and having “dorms like palaces.”
With academic strengths in government, economics and leadership, political activism is “part of the ethos of this campus,” said Andrew Busch, associate professor of government.
At the college, he and others say, political discussions seem to flow seamlessly in and out of classrooms, through residence halls and even into social gatherings.
“You go to a party here and people are actually talking about Medicare reform or school vouchers,” said senior Taryn Benarroch, 21, who has a double-major in government and music. “There’s, like, this intense interest in this stuff. It’s unreal.”
Students like to tease one another about being “gov jocks,” said Benarroch, president of Democrats of the Claremont Colleges, which includes students from across the Claremont consortium of schools. “That’s the college equivalent of policy wonks, and that’s what all of us are.”
So much so, added Chris Vieira, 19, a sophomore and member of the student Republican club, that he, his roommate and several others had been debating gay marriage and abortion until after 3 that morning. “It was great, but suddenly we all realized we had to go to bed,” he said.
“God, we sound like such nerds,” groaned senior Anneke Jong, 20, a member of the Democratic club and editor in chief of the Claremont Port Side, a left-leaning campus journal. “But it’s all true. Nobody on this campus is undecided about anything.”
Such political interest appears to be a national trend, as polls and informal surveys show that young people in general, and college students in particular, are paying close attention to the presidential race.
A September survey conducted by CBS News for MTV and a University of Maryland political research center showed 81% of registered voters ages 18 to 29 are paying “a lot” or “some” attention to this year’s campaign. That reversed a steady decline in interest since 1992, when 85% of such voters said they were paying attention. In 2000, just 63% indicated such levels of interest.
William Galston, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which co-sponsored the survey, said the reasons stem largely from this year’s issues.
“This is not an election about Social Security and school uniforms, but about war and the economy,” he said. “Young people are very worried about the ability of the economy to generate jobs, and with the war, they see people like them fighting and dying in Iraq.”
That is certainly the case at Claremont McKenna.
Jong and others, Republicans and Democrats alike, were gathered one recent afternoon in a sunny courtyard outside the Athenaeum building. Inside, other students listened to a talk by economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, part of the college’s speaker series.
Those interviewed said that Claremont McKenna’s student leadership this year is about evenly split between the two parties, despite the college’s long reputation as a breeding ground for conservatives.
According to data drawn from an annual nationwide survey of college freshmen, the campus is balanced politically, with 38% identifying themselves as middle-of-the-road, 30% as liberal and 25% as conservative. The remainder say they are far left or far right.
This election season, students from the school’s Democratic and Republican groups have held campaigns to help encourage classmates to register to vote and to educate them about the presidential race as well as statewide initiatives in California and elsewhere.
Like college students elsewhere, many at Claremont McKenna have taken part in organized political trips to Nevada, and even Pennsylvania, to try to influence voters in such swing states. They also have traveled to the Monterey Peninsula and elsewhere to campaign for local candidates.
Despite the intensity of their activism and differences in views, many of those involved are close friends, said Rob Carpenter, president of the Republican group. He and others say that by being frequently challenged, both inside and outside of class, they have to think through their own positions more thoroughly.
“People here are pretty open to your beliefs, no matter what their own affiliation,” said Carpenter, 19, a junior who was a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
But not all discussions at the college this election season are about weighty political issues. Claremont McKenna and its sister schools, including Pomona and Pitzer colleges, have a tradition of social debates in which students argue such tongue-in-cheek topics as “Meat Eaters vs. Vegetarians” and “Is Bush Better Than Sliced Bread?”
Speakers enjoy a minute or two of protected speech, during which other students -- using what Benarroch described as modified rules of order -- are allowed to shout “Yea,” “Nay” or “Shame!” A cowbell clangs the end of a speaker’s time. Then, there’s something of a free-for-all, followed by closing statements.
As many as 150 students often cram into dormitory lounges for the popular debates.
“Where else would students show up on a Thursday night for something like that?” Benarroch asked.