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Through Keene State, Utah students get unique primary experience

Original article published on Sentinel Source by Jake Lahut ( available here

With video-conferencing, students at Weber State University in Utah have a front-row seat to the N.H. primary. Through a laptop in a chair, they took in a campaign stop by Bill Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts running for the Republican presidential nomination, in September in the flag room at Keene State College.

Thanks to video-conferencing technology, New Hampshire voters no longer have a monopoly on holding a presidential hopeful’s feet to the fire in the first-in-the-nation primary.

In Utah, students at Weber State University beam into events at Keene State College via Zoom, a video-conference service.

The campus of more than 26,000 in Ogden, about a 40-minute drive north of Salt Lake City, has an arrangement with Keene State that allows not only video access to the events, but also the chance to throw questions at the candidates from more than 2,000 miles away.

Leah Murray, a political science professor at Weber State, coordinates with Keene State’s Kim Schmidl-Gagne, the college’s program coordinator and campus coordinator for the American Democracy Project.

Schmidl-Gagne, who is also president of the Keene State College Administrative Staff Association, a staff union, met Murray at a conference in Anaheim, Calif., in June of 2018.

While Keene State had been part of the American Democracy Project since 2008 as part of its mission to produce engaged citizens, collaboration with Weber State began in 2014 for an ADP project on income inequality, according to Schmidl-Gagne.

Then, after they met at the conference, Schmidl-Gagne visited Murray in Utah to hatch the video-conferencing partnership.

Back at their respective campuses, Schmidl-Gagne lets Murray know about any upcoming candidate visits in Keene.

Murray then books a room on the Weber State campus, and gets the word out to students, who she said usually come out of pure interest rather than for credit.

At the high end, around 25 to 30 students will show up, according to Murray.

When students have a question, she texts Schmidl-Gagne, who then reads it to the candidate.

While a small gathering in the Keene State student center may be routine for Owls and other attendees, Murray said the experience is a big deal for her students.

“Utah, the kind of political modus operandi here is that we don’t count,” she said. “So students will often say, ‘We don’t count,’ and our voter turnout often underperforms, and the reason why we underperform is because our elections are really not competitive at a national level.”

While New Hampshire has long been the first-in-the-nation primary state, usually voting in early February, Utah bumped its primary up a few weeks in March this year to become a “Super Tuesday” state, set to vote on March 3, the weekend after the third contest of the primary race in South Carolina.

The candidate visits also offer a unique teaching opportunity, according to Murray.

Instead of having to stay quiet through the whole thing, Murray can mute the mic and talk to the students about what’s going on, providing context about New Hampshire and the campaign.

The collaboration is also a chance for candidates to field questions that they may not otherwise get while campaigning in early states — “important states,” as some of Murray’s students put it.

“I feel like our students ask questions about immigration and undocumented students a little bit more, because Utah does have undocumented students,” Murray said. “So there are differences between what’s tracking for young people in New Hampshire and what’s tracking for [Utah students].”

At a September campus visit by Republican primary challenger and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, a Weber State student asked a question that changed the atmosphere in the room.

Weld had been talking about his policies and concerns over President Donald Trump’s behavior in the White House. But suddenly, the town hall forum became more philosophical when the Weber State student asked about the role religion played in Weld’s life and how he treats people.

Weld took the opportunity to draw what he described as a moral contrast between himself and the president.

Murray said Weld, by far, has been the biggest hit among the students, many of whom are relatively conservative and observe the Mormon faith.

“Their major issue [with President Trump] is that he’s not very nice,” Murray said. “Mitt Romney kind of articulates the Utah position better than President Trump.”

In 2012, Romney, a Mormon who is now the freshman U.S. senator representing Utah, won 72.6 percent of the vote in the Beehive State when he was the Republican nominee for president. In 2016, Trump won the state, but with only 45.5 percent of the vote, with the rest being split by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA officer Evan McMullin, a Utah native who ran as an independent.

Murray said some questions from Keene State students and New Hampshire voters strike the students in Utah as puzzling.

“I think it was Kirsten Gillibrand, and someone in the room asked about Al Franken,” Murray recalled. “[The Weber State students] were on a different track, and they were like, ‘Why would they care about that?’ They just didn’t understand why students would be asking about Al Franken and not asking about something that would really matter to them.”

Murray ended up hitting the mute button to explain who Franken is — both as a former U.S. senator and “Saturday Night Live” writer and cast member.

Franken, who now hosts a satellite radio show, resigned from the Senate in early 2018 after he was accused of sexual harassment and forcible touching by a conservative talk radio host, and, subsequently, seven other women.

Gillibrand was the first Democratic senator to call on him to resign, later joined by more than two dozen colleagues — several of whom told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker they now regret rushing to do so.

Schmidl-Gagne and Murray both noted that while questions over campaign strategy and electability are routine for Granite Staters, the Utah students often find them frivolous given the rare chance to ask the potential future leader of the free world about life-or-death issues.

“I think they feel like you’re spoiled,” Murray said.

On immigration, for example, Murray said there is often a significant chance that Utah students asking candidates about their plans are undocumented themselves.

Weber State is one of three universities involved in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the Trump administration’s efforts to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program offering legal status to children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.

As cool as the video conferencing may be, Murray noted there are some hiccups with certain candidates.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s freewheeling movement around the room renders the static webcam feed useless — though apparently, his reflection sometimes popped up in the microphone in front of the camera, Murray said.

Former vice president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s most recent events were so big that the possibility of asking questions went out the window.

And when former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke came to campus for the first time in March, Weber State students could “only see his abdomen” as he gave his stump speech while standing on top of a bench in the student center, according to Murray.

While smaller venues like the Weld town hall are ideal for the video-conference setup, Murray said nothing beats the real thing.

“I think they all wish they could see people in person,” she said. “So there’s definitely a thing in Utah where we wish we mattered.”

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