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Inside Politics

USC sheds conservative image

By Gina Goodhill
Special to CNN

Student correspondent Gina Goodhill dons her school sweatshirt.

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Campus Vibe

Editor's note: Campus Vibe is a feature that provides student perspectives on the 2004 election from selected colleges across the United States. This week's contributor is Gina Goodhill, student reporter at the Daily Trojan, the University of Southern California student newspaper. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the University of Southern California.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- For years the University of Southern California has had a reputation for being a politically conservative campus.

Yet even on a campus where most students remain more interested in football than politics, some are beginning to see a shift to the left as student Democrats gain numbers and become more involved in the political arena.

Some students and faculty members said they think such recent events as the controversial 2000 election and the war in Iraq will spark more students to get involved in politics and vote in the 2004 presidential election.

"USC itself has changed a great deal over time," said Ann Crigler, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

"The student body has become much more diverse. ... That diversity has coincided with a much more diverse [and] dynamic political spectrum."

Crigler said that when she came to USC in 1988 she assumed the school would be very conservative.

She said through the years, however, she has noticed a shift to the left among students' political preferences and among the political organizations on campus.

In the past, she said, Republicans had the strongest political organization on campus; now it's the Democrats.

Deryn Sumner, a senior majoring in political science and president of the USC Democrats club, can attest to that.

The 385-member club is the largest political organization on campus, and its consistent presence at statewide Democratic events makes it one of the strongest Democratic clubs in California, Sumner said.

She said recruiting Democrats for the club has gotten easier every year. "Each incoming class is more politically aware and less conservative," Sumner said.

Russell Scherer, a senior majoring in public policy and management who is chairman of the USC Republicans, said the club's membership, now about 224, has increased every year, too.

Richard Dekmejian, a political science professor who has been teaching at USC since 1986, said the political feeling among students is not the same as it was 15 years ago.

Changing demographics

He said he thinks the political change is probably a result of USC's increasing admission standards, which have changed the demographics of the student body.

"USC students are far brighter and much more discerning than they were when I first came here," he said. "A lot of people don't know what's happened here, how the grade point average has gone up."

He has already seen signs of increasing involvement, and strong opposition to the U.S.- led war in Iraq will "definitely" cause more students to vote, he said.

Sumner agreed that "the war issue is a powerful issue, and it gets people involved [from] both sides." She said that as the election nears she already sees more people getting involved.

Dekmejian said the 2000 election strengthened students' determination to vote.

"Students are very aware that U.S. democracy has ... weaknesses," Dekmejian said.

Sumner too has noticed a shift among the students in her club and among non-club members who approach her.

"Everyone in general has been paying more attention just because the election of 2000 was so notorious and infamous. People are going to saying, 'Remember what happened four years ago,'" Sumner said.

Increased political participation was evident earlier this year when the gubernatorial recall election, along with Proposition 54, which sought to end classification by race and ethnicity, dominated the political scene in California.

Bich Ngoc Cao, president of USC for Dean and managing editor of the alternative newspaper The Trojan Horse, said she saw previously uninvolved students participate in politics in response to the recall, and especially in response to Proposition 54, which she said made many students feel personally affected.

Because the recall was successful, she said Democratic students have begun to realize that they need to get involved. She said she has already witnessed this involvement extend toward the presidential election.

"People I know are getting involved in really, really deep levels that I haven't seen before," said Cao, a senior majoring in print journalism and political science.

"It's dawning on people that if we don't do something this year, next year we're going to re-elect [President Bush]," she added.

Despite these political shifts, however, the conservative stereotype is still strong. While USC Democrats may be the largest political club on campus, the club has yet to find recognition outside the campus gates.

"Other college Democratic clubs in the state say, 'Oh, USC, we're surprised you even have a Democratic club,'" Sumner said. "People view us as rich kids who vote Republican because [our] parents do."

One possible explanation for USC's conservative label dates to the early 1970s, when several conservative Republican alumni, known as the "USC mafia," served on President Nixon's White House staff or in his 1972 re-election campaign, which was later tainted by revelations of "dirty tricks" as part of the Watergate scandal.

While this incident is probably not the only reason for USC's conservative label, many agree that it reinforced the view.

"I think it certainly contributed to it," Crigler said.

Cao said that although there are actually few conservative organizations on campus, the conservative atmosphere today has remained because most students do not express their political beliefs.

"USC is very apathetic," Cao said. "There are a lot of liberal students here. Most people just don't express themselves about their politics."

Crigler agreed that politics is not the first priority for most students. But overall, she said, the level of political interest among USC students is "pretty typical [of] most college campuses."

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