Democratic Nominee 'Picked' at Va. College

Washington and Lee University kicked off its 100th mock convention on Friday with a parade of state floats.
Washington and Lee University kicked off its 100th mock convention on Friday with a parade of state floats. (Photo: Stephanie Gross)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

LEXINGTON, Va. -- As Democratic voters went to the polls in South Carolina over the weekend, strange things were happening here: Hard-core Republicans stood and cheered for Jesse L. Jackson, and Barack Obama supporters cast votes for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It's the 100th year of Washington and Lee University's mock convention, an event that has featured elephants, speakers such as Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter, more than a few epic parties and one dramatic death.

The convention predicts the nominee of the party not currently in the White House. It is meticulously researched and not infrequently giddy. And it has a remarkable record for accurate picks -- only once in 60 years has it chosen the wrong nominee.

The delegates gathered yesterday to make this year's call -- a toughie. Nothing like decades of pressure and having a national spotlight on you.

The leaders of the student-run convention, who worked on it for 2 1/2 years, have had their share of sleepless nights. Not only are there 100 years of tradition to uphold and the sense that this year's election will make history, but the field is more unpredictable than it has been for years.

"It's pretty amazing to have all that on your shoulders," said political director Wesley Little, a senior from Texas. He said he was sure he would be sweating at the roll call yesterday.

Organizers don't rely on polls but on grass-roots research, said Richard Friedman, a premed senior who served as general chairman.

More than 90 percent of the student body participates, about 1,700 people. Each state's delegation conducts local research -- reading newspapers, learning caucus rules and calling campaign staffers, district party leaders, reporters, professors and anyone else they can think of to help them gauge how their delegates are likely to vote.

The accuracy of the predictions doesn't matter as much as the research, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and one of the project's advisers for decades. "This is the best system of civic education at any college in the United States. That's what's important -- these young people will stay active and involved in politics their entire lives because of this."

At Washington and Lee, tradition is important. It's one of the oldest schools in the country, with red brick and white pillars, an honor system, a genteel sense of formality and a conservative student body.

This particular tradition began in 1908, when fiery populist William Jennings Bryan spoke on campus and students staged a mock convention. He was picked -- although not without a few brawls on the floor among riled-up student delegates -- and went on to earn the Democratic Party's nomination that year.

In 1956, Sen. Alben Barkley, a former vice president, was giving an emotional speech describing his return to the Senate. The crowd roared in approval when he said: "I would rather be a servant in the land of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty."

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