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Sanders, GOP Debate Bring Election 2016 Right To CU-Boulder's Doorstep

Bente Birkeland

Colorado will take center stage Wednesday when the Republican Party's presidential hopefuls hold their third debate at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Along with a recent visit from Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, CU students are saying all the activity is engaging younger voters ahead of 2016.

The state is politically purple, but Boulder is famously liberal, making the GOP debate a rare encounter with the conservative movement. Yet, mobilizing younger voters will be key to any electoral win, and both parties will be spending a lot of time in swing states like Colorado.

  Enthusiasm for the GOP's presidential candidates and the debate on the liberal CU campus has been less palpable than compared to the early October Bernie Sanders rally – which brought out roughly 9,000 people, including freshman humanities major Eliza Leeson.

"I loved seeing so many people, there was a lot of students," Leeson said. "It was cool. It was my first time in that type of situation. I really like what he says. I think he's connecting to the younger population."

Sanders' message of income inequality and attacking big banks on Wall Street also resonates with religious studies graduate student Scott Meyers. The CU campus has, what he calls, "Bernie fever."

Credit Bente Birkeland / RMCR
CU graduate student Scott Meyers

"Literally every single friend of mine on Facebook, the vast majority, are posting about Bernie Sanders and how enthusiastic they are about his candidacy," said Meyers.

That enthusiasm gap isn't something the GOP is going to overlook.

"The fact that this debate is in Colorado, suggests that Republicans do see this as an important state; and they will be trying to contest it," said Seth Masket, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Denver.

Masket thinks Trump is actually bringing people into the political fold much earlier than they would be otherwise.

"Through his celebrity status and his somewhat outlandish behavior… For people who don't necessarily have any interest in supporting him but are really just excited by his unusual approach to campaigning," said Masket.

Freshman Kendall Bonvicin, an environmental engineer and newly unaffiliated voter, hasn't decided on any candidate -- whether that's Trump, Sanders, or Clinton.

"I'm fairly conservative on most topics, but because I am an environmental engineer, on that topic I'm fairly liberal. This is the first year I'm ever able to vote so I'm like 'wow, I need to pay attention and think about these things, because my opinion counts,'" said Bonvicin.

Graduate student Scott Meyers, a Democrat, wants candidates in both parties to pay more attention to his top issue, which is reforming campaign finance laws.

"Our candidates are beholden to special interests, or unions, or whatever side of the issue you happen to fall on. I just think idea that money is speech radically disenfranchises the vast majority of Americans."

As for the debate itself, professor Masket is curious to see if a Colorado specific topic comes up, such as the growing Latino population or Pot.

"The marijuana legalization issue which has come up in previous debates and this is a state where that is a relevant issue, where legalization has been moving ahead pretty quickly and is already a pretty important part of the state's economy," said Masket.

Even though many students interviewed for this story were not Republicans – or didn't follow politics regularly – many said they would be watching the GOP presidential debate out of curiosity.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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