Running on free food, army of college students readies for midterm battle

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Alex Smith has always loved politics -- so it came as no surprise to her friends and family when the 16-year-old ditched her after-school activities to work on a campaign.

Her job was to knock on doors in her Bryn Mawr, Pa., neighborhood and collect petition signatures for the local township commissioner's race.

"It was a small task but it was an important one," Smith told "I could only work after school, so I would still be in my school uniform when I was going door-to-door."

Her gig wasn't glamorous. And she didn't get paid. "But once I became involved, I was hooked," she said.

Fast forward several years and Smith is leading one of the largest political organizations in America, the College Republicans, and recruiting thousands like her.

The College Republicans, together with its partisan counterpart the College Democrats of America, represents more than just an extra-curricular outfit. In a midterm season where control of Congress is on the line, they're a well of volunteers for hard-pressed campaigns and a conduit to young voters.

Seeing a golden ticket opportunity, top ranking Republican and Democratic strategists have been making a bee-line for college campuses ahead of November's elections. And the two organizations are readying students to be dispatched to states where there are close races.

"There's a lot at stake with this election," said Smith, who spends almost all of her time these days traveling to campuses to recruit students to spread her party's message.

Natasha McKenzie, national president for College Democrats of America, is doing the same, while trying to shed misconceptions about the role students play in elections.

"With the right message, and the right program, we can increase turnout to record levels this year -- and we're looking forward to doing just that," said McKenzie, whose group is more formally aligned with the Democratic Party itself.

Smith and McKenzie oversee nearly 100,000 members -- each -- and are in charge of recruiting, doling out assignments and galvanizing their party's student base.

Trying to convince college kids to fork over several hours of their free time isn't always easy. But in many cases, the recruiting tool -- besides the experience -- is little more than free food.

"All the campaigns basically come to you," one former University of Texas student and volunteer said about signing up. "Official representatives pitch campaign positions and offer you free food."

At one university, students were given beer pong "supplies" if they pitched in.

While easy to laugh off, a closer look at the youth arm of the political parties shows an impressive level of coordination and management that rivals corporate America.

The actual duties of a student volunteer vary depending on the race and circumstances. However, most students who sign up end up doing everything from pushing party policies on social media to old-schooling it by canvassing neighborhoods, answering phones and helping out wherever they are needed.

Some, though, say the playing field isn't leveled and the biggest difference between the red and blue college camps comes down to which side has more green.

"Within College Democrats, every position is volunteer from our national leadership to our grassroots canvassers," McKenzie said.

Over on the GOP side, things run a little differently.

While the majority of College Republicans volunteer their time, Smith's full-time position is paid. And thanks to generous donors, the College Republicans are kicking off a $2 million program this month called "Operation Red Campus."

The money, Smith says, will go toward hiring three regional political directors and dispatching another 30 field representatives to 16 key states including Ohio, Florida and Kentucky. It will also be spent on laying the groundwork for the 2016 presidential race.

"Republicans on college campuses are some of the best volunteers the party has," Republican National Committee spokesman Raffi Williams told He added, "The bottom line is our party would not have the majority in the House or 29 governor's mansions without the support of college Republicans."

Despite being out-matched monetarily, College Democrats say they aren't backing down from the fight.

Brexton Isaacs, president of the Illinois Wesleyan University chapter, told that the group has already recruited 1,000 new members across the state this fall.

In late August, Isaacs' school was named the 2014 National Chapter of the Year at the College Democrats of America national convention in Atlanta.

"People repeatedly told me that students don't vote or care about elections," he said. "It became the goal of our local College Democrats chapter to prove them wrong ... in the end, we turned out over 40 percent of our campuses to vote, over 75 percent of them for our candidate."