Group looks to boost political engagement

by Amy Horst

If a group of students and professors at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs is successful, learning about events such as yesterday’s New Hampshire presidential primary might soon be easier.

The group, led by political science professor Larry Jacobs, has organized the 2004 Elections Project to increase understanding of issues and trends important to voters in the Upper Midwest.

To get students involved in the political life of Minnesota and the United States, the group manages a Web site with public opinion and political reports, sends out an e-mail list and hosts gatherings to discuss the primaries and caucuses leading to the November election.

“The project is kind of opening a door and starting a conversation that is led by students as to what is meaningful and interesting,” Jacobs said.

At a pizza party Tuesday night at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, students watched the results of the New Hampshire primaries on a large TV screen and discussed the results of the primaries with professors who also attended.

Kevin O’Hara, a Humphrey Institute graduate student who attended the party, said he appreciated the timing of the project.

“I think it’s great to start it now to draw attention to issues and have a dialogue within the University,” he said.

Lately, keeping students interested in politics has been especially important, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, because young people are increasingly apathetic about politics and most get their news from the Internet.

“Starting a project like this makes a lot of sense,” Rainie said. “You have to fish where the fish are.”

However, he said surging Internet use by college-age people does not indicate that more students are showing an interest in politics.

Students who get their news on the Internet, he said, are probably the same students who would be politically engaged no matter what.

“If they didn’t have the Internet in their lives, they are the ones who would show up at campaign headquarters anyway and lick envelopes,” Rainie said.

Cindy Orbovich, associate director of the Humphrey Institute Policy Forum, said the project offers an e-mail list so interested people can sign up to have the project’s news and reports regularly delivered to their inboxes. Currently, the list has about 2,616 subscribers, said Matt Sumera, program director at the Office of University Relations.

About 70 percent to 80 percent of those are students, Orbovich said.

The project’s additional focus on the upper Midwest area is particularly well-timed, said Maria Hanratty, professor of public affairs. November’s election will focus a great deal on those states, she said.

“I think that (the upper Midwestern states) are definitely going to be swing states,” Hanratty said. “The outcome could depend on what happens in these states.”

Project organizers plan to hold another pizza party Feb. 3, when seven states will hold primaries and caucuses.