ST. LOUIS • When Republican Donald Trump arrives at Washington University Sunday to debate Democrat Hillary Clinton, he won’t have the formal backing of the campus’s largest Republican student group.
“We are afraid of Trump, too,” reads a sign that College Republicans have displayed on campus and will put up again at an event before the debate Sunday.
If journalists need a mini refrigerator, Washington University can supply one for $80. A live fern is $40. All told, an outlet can spend as much as $10,000 on what they need to broadcast from campus for several days.
And yet, the unorthodox candidate has still lit a fire under some conservatives on campus.
One student who co-founded the Missouri Youth for Trump group is hosting a “Meet the Deplorables” rally Sunday, referring to the derogatory name Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters.
Such is the atypical political scene on campus during an atypical presidential matchup.
It’s an election season in which many say enthusiasm among young college voters peaked along with the rise of Bernie Sanders. Now that the so-called “candidate of the millennial” is gone, these students are a coveted set of voters.
Clinton and Trump will face each other on the St. Louis campus at 8 p.m. Sunday in the second presidential debate. It’s an event that costs the university millions of dollars but one that administrators say is worth it when students get to interact with the democratic process.
Similar to years past, the campus’ College Democrats are excitedly backing the ticket, from Hillary Clinton on down.
Meanwhile, the College Republicans’ decision not to endorse the national candidate — while intriguing — was natural for the group, said president Ruben Schuckit, 20.
During primary season, the student members almost exclusively backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Kasich, thinking “that Trump wouldn’t make it that far,” said Schuckit, a junior computer science major.
Vice presidential candidates strike at the difference between Clinton, Trump.
When Trump kept taking states by storm and claimed the nomination, the College Republicans wanted to find a way to make a statement to potential members and incoming freshmen. So they made a sign that will reappear on campus Sunday before the debate: “We are afraid of Trump, too.”
Still, the group recruited fewer new members this year. Shuckit doesn’t think it’s because of the sign, but rather the candidate, Trump.
“People are less willing to engage because they’re not happy with the nominee,” he said.
Schuckit said “flippant” remarks about Arizona Sen. John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war, and “disparaging” large populations such as women and minorities are key reasons the largely moderate group won’t back Trump.
“I’ve got to say, we were upset for a while,” Schuckit said. “We couldn’t believe we’re having a debate on this campus at a time when we’re not supporting the candidate. But now we’re excited again. It’s really quite a big deal.”
‘Not shy’ about Trump
Thomas Hildebrand, 20, can’t say how many Trump supporters there are on campus, but he’s hoping to bring as many as possible out of the woodwork for the “Meet the Deplorables” rally before the debate Sunday.
“I got this idea because a lot of Trump supporters are really sort of shy about who they support,” said Hildebrand, co-founder of Missouri Youth for Trump.
The rally is bringing in college-age students from Washington University and statewide. It’s the chance to meet with Trump supporters and show that “there’s no need to be shy any more,” Hildebrand said. The group will meet at the protest zone outside of campus at Big Bend and Forsyth boulevards Sunday afternoon. The campaign is still working out details, including the meeting time.
Hildebrand, a graduate student in chemical engineering, said he thought Washington University students were either committed to a candidate or silent about their beliefs — or a combination of the two. Aside from seeing people walk around in Bernie Sanders shirts occasionally, “it’s not a very politically active campus,” he said.
That’s why he’s hosting the rally: to create an opportunity for the people who lost their candidate with Sanders or those who aren’t sold on Clinton. It’s a chance to “let them speak their mind and learn about Trump and his supporters,” Hildebrand said.
Paul Felder, a junior biology major, hopes to attend. He is one of few members of the College Republicans supporting Trump.
Felder isn’t loud about his political allegiances, partially out of fear of perception.
“I don’t tell my professors or talk about it in class because it’s really not seen as an acceptable viewpoint,” he said.
“It’s ironic to me that this campus and student body talk about tolerance, yet I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way,” he said, referring to intolerance of conservative opinion.
Still, Felder is excited about the prospect of opening up the political discussions campus-wide as the debate preparation gears up at Washington University.
Energy for Clinton
The debate week and election week are smooth sailing for the College Democrats.
Jimmy Loomis III, 21, president of the group, said all of its events were about touting Clinton’s qualifications and “explaining what a Trump presidency could mean.”
Supporting their candidate means the College Democrats plan to capitalize on the fact that all eyes are on Washington University this week. The group is hosting a make-your-own Clinton logo T-shirt event on campus, and participating in a phone bank Thursday with the official campaign.
They’re also hosting a table alongside the College Republicans at a “Debate Fair” on campus Sunday. The two groups are going to answer policy questions from students and others who are credentialed to be on campus.
“There’s no doubting that the millennial vote is going to be crucial in either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton winning the election,” said Loomis, who is also an elected representative on the St. Louis County Democratic Central Committee. “We want to energize our student base, because frankly that’s been an issue with Secretary Clinton getting that millennial vote.”
MORE ON THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES