As snow began to fall on her Connecticut campus last December, Alyssa Simpson headed west. The Trinity College sophomore and co-president of Trinity's Hillel would spend her winter break in Las Vegas, though not in the typical college fashion. Twenty-year-old Simpson did not have time to bask in the bright lights of Sin City. She was logging 18-hour days, seven days a week, at Hillary Clinton's Nevada campaign headquarters.
"It was the first time that Nevada had been an important caucus," Simpson says. "A lot of people in the state were uneducated about how caucuses work and our main objective was to educate them and explain how their vote counts."
Alyssa Simpson, right, meets with former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton in Nevada.
Simpson, a San Francisco native whose parents both support Barak Obama, says she seized the opportunity to travel to Las Vegas because of the job opportunity. But once she met Senator Clinton in person, she was sold on her candidacy.
"I [took the job] for the experience," she says. "But, as I was working [for the campaign], I had the opportunity to meet her several times. I found her to be genuine, smart, hardworking and full of energy. I also met a lot of people I really respect who work for her."
It seems Jewish voters share similar sentiments about the former First Lady. A recent Gallup poll shows Jews favor Clinton (66%) over Obama (61%) when it comes to a match-up against the presumed republican nominee, John McCain.
But, Jewish support for McCain is not insignificant. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, "the independent Democrat," is among his high-profile supporters. And in 2002, McCain teamed with democratic Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold to pass the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act.
McCain meets with Zac Byer and fellow members of the Penn College Republicans Executive Board.
Jewish support for McCain has been largely attributed to his solid pro-Israel record. Zac Byer, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, who has spent some Shabbatot and High Holy Days at Hillel, says he favors the GOP's stance on economic issues and national security.
"We're in an economic downturn right now," says Byer. "The absolute worst thing we can do is raise taxes and that's what the Democrats want to do. Obama hasn't been explicitly clear on how he'll spend the money. McCain has been clear all along."
Byer recently completed his term as president of the Penn College Republicans and in the fall, will assume a new role as the group's chairman. Earlier in the school year, the Penn College Republicans, which boasts about 50 active members, saw 1,000 students turn-out for a McCain event on campus.
"Right now, everyone's focused on the Democratic primary," says Byer. "In the fall, we'll see an increase [in the numbers of Republican Jewish students]. We plan to reach out to incoming freshmen, soft Democrats and students not yet registered to vote."
On Penn's campus, Democrats out number Republicans roughly 9:1, Byer estimates, and benefit from significantly more resources since Philadelphia is a largely Democratic city. For Byer, the issue of Israel supercedes party affiliations.
Obama meets with Hillel and Israel on Campus Coalition staffers at the Israeli Embassy's Israel at 60 celebration.
"When Obama was asked, 'what would happen if there was a nuclear attack on Israel?'…he skirted the issue," says Byer. "The answer that the Jewish people should be looking for is that we're going to meet strength with greater strength, we're going to retaliate, we're going to let people know the state of Israel is here."
Twenty-one-year old Arielle Rosayn echoes Byer. Rosayn grew up in Delray Beach and attends Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in nearby Boca Raton. She is a member of the local Hillel as well as a committee member for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. She is also, "behind McCain 100 percent."
"I trust John McCain to be our president and protect Israel and everything she stands for," says Rosayn. "Some people say he is 'too old' to be our president…I have to disagree after hearing him speak with such vigor and energy. I guess 71 is the new 51."
Rosayn, a political science major, has worked for two Jewish Republican representatives in the state of Florida. When Lieberman was in town campaigning for McCain, Rosayn served as a travel aid, guiding him around Broward and Dade Counties. She also helped organize a McCain rally when the Florida Republican Presidential Debate came to FAU's campus in January.
Arielle Rosayn with McCain.
Despite the more than 50-year age gap (the largest of all three front runners), a significant number of college students are supporting McCain. A Facebook group titled "Jews for McCain" was created by a recent college graduate. Brian Hofman, a 2007 alumnus of Yeshiva University in New York, says he formed the group at the beginning of the primary season so that "Jews from all over the world would interact with each other and make one another aware that John McCain is in fact the best qualified candidate for president and the Jewish people."
Hofman, like Byer and Rosayn, points to McCain's pro-Israel voting record. "Jews for McCain" currently has 221 members (a second "Jews for McCain" group has 29 members). "Jews For Hillary" has a mere 49. There are approximately a dozen groups titled "Jews for Obama" with the largest exceeding 625 members.*
One of those members is Geoff Levin, a freshman at Michigan State University. On campus, he is an active member of "Students for Barack Obama" which organizes pro-Obama events and educates students about his candidacy. Beyond campus, Levin has made phone calls to voters across six states on behalf of the Obama campaign.
As a Jew, Levin says he is morally obligated to support Obama and views his plan to provide healthcare for all American children, reduce carbon emissions and fix the education system as acts of tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (reparing the world).
"Our laws and our traditions insist that we must do what we can to help those in need," Levin writes. "And by voting for Barack Obama we will be furthering the values that have guided our people for thousands of years."
Indeed, the possibility of electing the first female or first black president of the United States has motivated many college students to act as never before. Numerous media outlets have reported extensively on the surge in political activism on American college campuses including in Pennsylvania, where Clinton defeated Obama in the state's primary on April 22.
Clinton visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Victories like that keep Clinton supporters, like Alyssa Simpson, hopeful. Still, an overwhelming number of college students support Obama. The largest "Students for Obama" Facebook group counts 28, 459 while similar groups of McCain and Clinton total 1,562 and 430 respectively.*
"I think it's the 'cool' thing to support Barak on the college campus," says Simpson. "People have jumped on the bandwagon without looking at the issues."
Though Simpson is passionate about the upcoming presidential election, she recently turned down a summer job offer with the Democratic Party of San Francisco. Instead, she'll be traveling to Japan on a grant and studying Spanish at UC Berkeley. When she returns to Connecticut in August, the Democrats will have determined a winner in time for their National Convention. Simpson says if Obama is selected as the democratic nominee, she'll shift her support.
"Basically, I think both Hillary and Barak will do a much better job for the American people," she says.
But, as co-president of Hillel, she is keeping her views strictly personal and says, "[Trinity] Hillel isn't supporting any particular candidate."
*Numbers based on Facebook groups searched May 7, 2008. Additional Facebook groups, smaller in size, supporting all three candidates also exist.