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An Irish view of a Swing State: 'There is no evidence of support for Trump on campus'

The University of Pennsylvania is Trump’s alma mater but the candidate isn’t doing well on campus, reports Irish woman Rosemary Hennigan in the US.

Rosemary Hennigan

AUTUMN AT THE University of Pennsylvania brings with it cooling temperatures, leaves turning from green to various shades of ochre, and a campus abuzz with the return of its population of college students.

The first few weeks of the semester mean new classes to attend, books to buy, and student groups to join.

Among the groups vying for attention is ‘Penn for Hillary’ — a student-run organisation which works with the official ‘Hillary for America’ campaign and is currently busy registering new students to vote in Pennsylvania.

They are enthusiastic, organised and a dominant presence on the red-brick campus.

The University of Pennsylvania is Trump’s alma mater: he graduated from the Wharton School of Business in 1968. Yet, there is no evidence of support for Trump’s candidacy within the grounds.

GOP 2016 Trump Wharton This 20 March 2016 photo shows an article about Donald Trump on the front page of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania. Trump graduated from the university'’s business college, the Wharton School, in 1968. The article states that the university “declined to comment on Trump's years there. Source: AP/Press Association Images

While ‘Penn for Hillary’ members were out in force, the Republican party has no visible presence.

A campus organisation known as ‘Penn for Trump’ disbanded in January.

Swing State Status

As a swing state, Pennsylvania is vital for both candidates. A steady stream of surrogates has arrived to campaign here since the summer.

President Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren have all campaigned for Clinton in Philadelphia, while Trump has campaigned in Philadelphia, as well as the rural areas where his support is strongest.

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s lead strategist during his presidential campaign in the 1990’s, once described Pennsylvania as Pittsburgh to the west, Philadelphia to the east and Alabama in between.

The urban centres of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia vote Democrat and are likely to do so again in this election, but the blue-collar, rural stretches of Pennsylvania are staunchly Republican and Trump will be keen to maximise this support.

Speaking to the students volunteering for Clinton, their enthusiasm for their candidate is striking.

It’s not just about beating Trump at all costs. It’s also about Clinton as a candidate who represents their interests and, in their words, can actually ‘get the job done’.

For many of the students, it was the latter quality which ultimately drove them to lend their support to Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

Campaign 2016 Clinton Source: Matt Rourke

Vedika Gopal, a sophomore studying Neuroscience, told me she had gone through a slight ‘Feel the Bern’ phase but she voted for Clinton in the primaries because she had a better chance of winning the election.

“There are a lot of issues that Bernie brought up and I love that Bernie existed as a candidate,” Gopal told me.

“A lot of Hillary’s policies changed because of him.”

Grant Klieser has been a Clinton supporter since the presidential primaries and, when asked about Sanders, said:

I was on the fence for a while. I liked Bernie’s policies but didn’t think he’d be able to enact them. I felt that Clinton is more of a bipartisan – someone who would reach across the aisle and actually affect change. Her policies are more plausible.

Klieser says that the public dissatisfaction voiced at the Democratic National Convention by supporters of Sanders was “a last gasp by his supporters to get him nominated”.

“Most of them will come around, especially with Trump’s more provocative statements.”

For another student, Rachel, the prospect of having a female president is “unbelievably exciting”.

She says that “it’s symbolic but symbolism matters”. But she thinks the media coverage Clinton has received is unfair. While acknowledging that some of the controversies facing Clinton were “things she probably shouldn’t have done”, Rachel says that much of the coverage is sexist.

They hit her for everything … there really is no version of her interacting with the public that is good. Part of it is because she’s Hillary Clinton, but some of it is sexist.

Lead campus campaigners

Sam Iacobellis co-runs Penn for Hillary with Emily Irani. He says he was never tempted by Sander’s campaign.

Sam says “besides John Quincy Adams, we’ve never had someone running for president as qualified as Clinton”.

He sees in Clinton a candidate that might effectively breakdown the partisan gridlock dominating American congressional politics. Asked about his view on Clinton’s chances of winning Pennsylvania, Iacobellis says:

There isn’t a path to victory for Trump without Pennsylvania and he’s going to spend a lot of money here but the question is whether it’s too late.

I asked Iacobellis about the absence of any support for Trump on campus and he told me that, while he knows members of the Penn Republican groups, he “can’t tell you one person who voted for Trump”.

“It’s not their party. It’s not conservatism. It’s not republicanism.”

At a viewing party for the first presidential debate, the students’ reactions to Trump are a mixture of disbelief, amusement and disgust. And despite the presence of many conservative groups on campus – the Federalists and the College Republicans – there’s no support from the audience watching Trump’s performance at the debate.

Unrepresented by their candidate, the silence of young Republicans in this election campaign is palpable. It raises questions about how the politics of Trump supporters and the classic conservatism of middle class, college-educated Republicans can co-exist in one party.

Despite indications during the primaries that the youth vote was not with Clinton, there’s no evidence of lethargic support for Clinton on campus. But while support for Clinton and the Democrats is strong, my attempts to reach out to college Republicans went unanswered.

For this election — and this candidate — it seems college Republicans are lying low. It remains to be seen whether traditional Republicans will turn out for Trump on election day or wait to fight another day.

Rosemary Hennigan is attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School as a Fulbright Scholar.

An Irish view of a Swing State: ‘Trump supporters think they’re going to shock the world’

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Rosemary Hennigan

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