Here’s one way to infer that the kids at J.R. Masterman, known as Philadelphia’s premier public high school, are your classic overachievers: When Steve Gilligan’s two advanced-placement government classes were told to pick sides for the school’s 14th mock debate, both classes chose Team Romney (a dispute resolved, in the end, by a coin toss). Everyone wanted the challenge of trying to sway a liberal student body, explains Johana Barxha, 17, treasurer for the Romney campaign. “And we got some really great results,” she says. “Some of our polls have shown a 12 percent increase for the Romney campaign.”
The goal, says Gilligan, “is to increase voter efficacy and fight apathy … so that when they do hit 18 they feel they can help direct what government does.” The effort used to be supported by a program of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, but that funding has dried up.
Which leaves Gilligan and, of course, the students running the show. “I haven’t slept much in the past couple weeks,” admits Natashia De Lamo, 17, clutching a wireless headset. The campaign manager for the Obama effort describes her job as “going around with our candidate, being his mother and secretary,” while pushing social media and marketing efforts. De Lamo says she’s learned some vital lessons about the teenage constituency. Chief among them: “The way to get students to listen to you is to buy them food. So for every item of food you give out, you have to have facts attached to them.” An event called Guac with Barack went over particularly well.
Before the surrogate nominees faced off, Mayor Michael Nutter took the stage to encourage civic engagement. He mentioned the likelihood of getting actual “information from this debate” (as opposed, apparently, to the ones involving the actual candidates). Republican Councilman David Oh also addressed students, rummaging through his wallet for the totem of his membership in American adult society — “it’s not a tattoo, it’s not a gun … it’s a voter-registration card.”
So does all this make an impact on how young people vote? “I’ve been brainwashed by the Romney campaign,” admitted one student who had been working for the Republican camp and found the message, at least for the moment, compelling. The student, however, didn’t want to be identified as a potential Romney voter, explaining, “I’d probably get pummeled.”