The Relevance of Personal Politics on a College Campus

What a Martin O’Malley event at Pitzer College taught me about the value of intimate settings on the presidential campaign trail

Charlie Riedel / AP

CLAREMONT, Calif.—Scrawled across the pavement in orange and pink chalk is the announcement: “Presidential Candidate Gov. Martin O’Malley 4:30 Benson [Auditorium] Today 9/24.” It is perhaps the only indication that a presidential candidate is visiting.

Thirty minutes before O’Malley’s visit, Pitzer College’s campus is largely devoid of students, but I spot a few lounging on the grassy mounds outside the auditorium, scrolling through their phones, chatting. The dry heat bears down, contributing to the sluggish mood and prompting students to seek AC indoors. I’m sweating heavily from my short bike over. There are no signs of security or presidential pomp—nothing to suggest that this Thursday afternoon is different from any other. One student walks up to me and asks if this is, indeed, where O’Malley will be speaking. I answer with a hesitant affirmative.

As I approach the auditorium, I hear “American Pie” begin to play. Somehow the energy remains low. I expected a better turnout from this liberal, youthful hotbed. Pitzer is part of the Claremont College Consortium, a group of graduate and undergraduate institutions with over 7,000 students. By the previous night’s count, 549 people had RSVPed on Facebook, and I assumed even more would show up to the auditorium, which seats just 313. But there are no throngs of excited supporters waiting for the doors to open, clamoring for a chance to hear O’Malley speak. I survey the near-empty auditorium in front of me with disappointment and take an aisle seat in the sixth row from the stage.

A projector screen displays a welcome message and colorful posters plaster the walls. They read: “PASS THE DREAM ACT,” “Student Senate WELCOMES GOV. O’MALLEY,” “End Police Brutality,” “We Need REAL Progressive Leaders,” “We are the 99%.” I’m skeptical about the last one.

Soon enough, more students bleed into the auditorium. An O’Malley aide passes around a sign-up sheet to collect contact info. Behind me, a boy reminds his friend that O’Malley is polling at one percent. A girl shuffles into my row and comments to her seatmate, “It’s a really small venue.” That it is, but people file in all the same, backpacks and longboards in hand. A friend of mine plops down next to me and asks, “That’s not him, is it?” He points to a man—white hair, slight paunch. It’s not.

By 4:30 p.m. the place heats up—literally and metaphorically. A buzz of conversation fills the space; people stand in the back and some even occupy the steps between aisles. The turnout of a few hundred still seems low for a presidential candidate, but the tiny auditorium relieves any sense of emptiness.

O’Malley trots out to the blaring tunes of “Tessie,” by Dropkick Murphys, and is received by a standing ovation. He strikes a pose, strumming an air guitar with a vigor reserved for teenage heavy-metal fans. “Gotta have a theme song,” he quips. He thanks us all for attending and gives a stilted, off-hand spiel about Pitzer College and its strong history of student activism.

Then O’Malley launches into a stump speech. The change in his voice is remarkable; he becomes more animated, walking back and forth like a professor delivering a lecture, forgoing the podium, his speech now fluid and clear. His smile is broad and his eyes are constantly creased. He hits his talking points, holding forth on college affordability to Wall Street to gun reform. He appears fit, healthy, and—most surprisingly, to me—genuine. The speech is laden with buzzwords: “opportunity,” “progress,” “dreams,” “goals,” “rebuild,” “grow,” “action,” “expand,” “lift up,” “close gap,” “succeed,” “help,” “excited.”

He touts his executive record as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, and rehashes an impressive list of progressive reforms. The loudest applause comes for remarks on climate change and immigration reform. At another point he states emphatically, “Our economy is not about money. Our economy is about people!”

The students don’t give him the dismayed skepticism they show for other politicians during dining-hall conversation and class discussion—they are quiet, respectful, engaged. Listening to O’Malley is invigorating; I no longer care about the lack of people, the sleepy summer heat outside, or the abysmal polling numbers of the man in front of me.

O’Malley ends his 15-minute speech with a zinger: “It’s about us.” He gives a chuckle and allows for a brief moment of silence. “U-period, S-period. Thank you!” I wonder if a speechwriter actually allowed him to use that joke, or if he went rogue and changed it up. Nevertheless, it seems effective, we rise to our feet, we clap, he thanks us again.

The whole sensation reminds me of attending a spring-training baseball game. I’m 10-years-old, trailing my father to the ballpark to watch a matchup between the split-squad Giants and the Diamondbacks. Shaved ice, peanuts, the same dad-rock playing between innings. O’Malley is no Clinton or Bernie. He is certainly no Trump. He doesn’t draw crowds, but neither does he bring along the baggage of a high-profile candidate. Sitting in this small auditorium off the coast of California is akin to those intimate ball yards of Florida and Arizona. No seat is a bad seat. People come to watch a game they love, to see the stars and the underdogs too.

O’Malley, in this sense, is the underdog. He doesn’t draw masses of autograph-seeking fans. And I like that. I appreciate the intimacy, the smallness of space, the proximity to a man who—in theory—wants to lead this country.

In an age when so many (myself included) are disenchanted with politicians and the political process at large, I feel as if I’m experiencing something special, a rare moment of democracy in Benson Auditorium. I’m a participant here. I can stand up and ask this man a question. I’m no longer one among millions—I’m one among 300. I’m not just reading the news, watching TV, or debating with my friends. I matter, somehow.

My fellow students seem equally engaged as they line up at microphones to ask O’Malley questions. They press him about a range of specific and often personal topics: autism, veterans, housing, Syria, immigrant labor, Planned Parenthood, campaign finance, transgender violence. His answers are not revolutionary or particularly inspired; his answers are answers. He makes more jokes and draws plenty of laughs.

O’Malley likely won’t win the Democratic nomination, but I’m still drawn to him as a person. I feel something for O’Malley unlike anything I feel toward the other presidential candidates, all of whom I have experienced only via phone and computer. I read about the others, watched them speak, followed them on Twitter. But I am struck by the power of O’Malley’s physical presence. I appreciate his optimism, his corny jokes, and his air-guitar-strumming ways. I seem to have forgotten the effect an actual person (and a good public speaker) can have when presented in the flesh. To continue the spring-training metaphor, I’ve become too used to watching the game from the nosebleeds.

Millennials often eschew politics as broken, partisan, and ineffective. Our political participation is limited to the ballot box—if that. But having the chance to engage with a nominee in such an intimate setting makes clear the power and relevance of personal politics, even today. We are making our voices heard to a person who actually holds power, who wants to represent us.

And we can do this largely because O’Malley is polling in the single digits. In that sense, there is a redemptive quality to the underwhelming turnout. While likely smaller and less exciting than the rallies of Trump, Sanders, or Hillary, it is the smallness that brings me closer to the candidate, closer to the electoral process. It is this closeness that feels so strange and so pleasant in a political life made often distant by technology. I’m no longer consuming news at arms length; I’m watching O’Malley speak and answer questions in full sentences, unedited, and unadorned by infographics. It’s hard to imagine engaging Hillary in this way—she rarely even speaks to the press.

Yet I know that as soon as the Q&A session is over, many of us will be back on our phones, our political participation henceforth limited to staying informed (at different rates of success), and waiting for next November to come. Some of us will wonder who these candidates are, we’ll scoff at Congress, and wait for Trump to do something crazy.

But today, we take ourselves seriously because O’Malley takes us seriously. We take the democratic process seriously because O’Malley is here, in person, in dialogue about issues that matter to us.