Everything was going according to plan when Connor Paquin ended his stump speech for student body president in front of the Cal Poly College Republicans. He closed with his usual shtick (“Poly wins with Paquin!”), then asked for questions.
“What is your party registration?” asked College Republicans President Nate Honeycutt.
Mishearing the question, or maybe anticipating something more typical for his target audience, Paquin launched into an answer about the recent Cal Poly controversy over whether fraternities and sororities need to register parties and place strict alcohol restrictions on their members. But Honeycutt stopped him.
“No no no, your political registration.”
The fact that Honeycutt’s question caught Paquin off guard is indicative of the impact, or lack thereof, that politics have in student government elections. While all three of the candidates for president in this year’s election were Republicans, party preference — both locally and nationally — continued to be absent in the race for office.
The facts are simple, said Butch Oxendine, the executive director of the American Student Government Association: Someone’s political beliefs will affect how they work as a leader.
Student government presidents deal with a number of issues in office that have political undertones. Tuition increases, financial aid and diversity efforts are among them.
But when it comes to election season at college campuses, Oxendine said, politics are almost never discussed.
“The general student body doesn’t care about student government,” he said. “And obviously with that truth they don’t care about the politics of the individual candidate, because they’re not voting and not participating.”
This voting apathy is evident at Cal Poly, where a “high” election year turnout brings 40 percent of students to vote. This year, 23 percent of students voted.
The situation is even worse at other university campuses. Oxendine said a 23-percent voter turnout is high compared to other colleges across the country, many of which have uncontested presidential races.
But voter apathy isn’t the only reason politics don’t rear their head in student government elections. The day-to-day work of a president, even one at a large state university, doesn’t tend to intersect with questions of ideological policies.
For Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) President Jason Colombini, he said his politics haven’t even crossed his mind on any decisions he’s had to make this year. Even if they did, he said, he would set aside his beliefs to align with a student consensus.
“You need to put it on the side,” he said. “Because this isn’t a partisan office.”
Colombini didn’t talk politics during his campaign for office, and he’s continued to stay away from the topic during his time there. But President-elect Joi Sullivan hasn’t been as shy talking about her political beliefs.
A Republican, she’s talked openly in the days after her campaign about political disagreements with campaign manager Daniel Wasta — though she made clear it didn’t affect their working dynamic. She said they could keep the politics separate from the campaign because of the lack of an overlap between national issues and the work of student government.
“I’m pretty conservative; I had plenty of people help on the campaign that are not,” she said. “I don’t think it really makes a difference.”
Sullivan dodged a potential liability from her politics when the Cal Poly College Republicans, run by former ASI presidential candidate Nate Honeycutt, offered her its endorsement. She weighed the potential support she could gain from the club’s public endorsement against the possibility of turning off liberal voters, and ultimately decided to keep quiet about their support until after the campaign.
“There’s going to be those students that are going to vote for you because they think you will have the same kind of ideology,” Sullivan said. “But I’d be surprised if a lot of Cal Poly students really thought about that.”
Much like how Colombini said his politics haven’t become a factor in his leadership, Sullivan doesn’t expect to be using her ideology to drive decisions during the upcoming year.
“I represent all students in this job, regardless of the ideology,” she said. “So I would say I’m going to disassociate my ideology … because I’m representing students.”
While national politics seems to be far removed from student government, other schools work in politics through a more localized system.
A handful of American universities, including some in California, have political parties separate from Democrats and Republicans that drive voters and student government ballots.
Originating in tightly knit groups such as greek life, Oxendine said these parties can coordinate fundraising and marketing to help candidates campaign for office. The policy positions from party to party are frequently similar, he said, but they benefit elections by recruiting stronger candidates and, with enough support, can encourage the average student to become involved in student government.
“From a public relations standpoint, they’re always going to get more attention because there’s more emphasis on promotion,” Oxendine said. “Often there’s a desire to be a part of it.”
In California, prominent universities such as UC Berkeley and UCLA have these types of parties.
Colombini said he’s thankful Cal Poly hasn’t adopted that system. He thinks they would discourage voters from focusing on the students running for office, instead tempting them to choose a party without researching its candidates.
“I don’t think it’s right for Cal Poly,” Colombini said. “I really think it’s helped a lot over the years to not look at other (Board of Directors) members or other representatives and say, ‘Oh, you’re in that party? I’m not going to work with you.’”
Sullivan, on the other hand, said it could be a valuable lesson in real-world government for candidates and voters to go through an election cycle with parties at Cal Poly.
A self-proclaimed “poli-sci nerd,” Sullivan excitedly envisioned a campaign complete with primaries, nominations and fundraising.
She said it could be difficult for an apathetic student body to get on board with a drawn-out election process. But on the other hand, it could be a valuable lesson in American politics, without creating a red vs. blue divide.