LEXINGTON, VA.—The students at Washington and Lee University have a flair for picking presidential candidates. Every election year for the past century, 90 percent of its roughly 1,800 students have gathered for a mock convention, and their record of predicting the nominee for the party not in the White House is pretty darned good. The students picked John Kerry in 2004, George W. Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, and Bill Clinton in 1992. They've gotten every nominee correct, except one, since 1948. They chose Ted Kennedy in 1972, instead of George McGovern. Overall, they've been right 18 out of 23 times.
This year, their centennial, the stakes are high. The Democratic Mock Convention is scheduled for January 25-26, so students will select their nominee before the polls close in South Carolina. As the event's planners gathered on their southern-style campus, with classic red brick buildings and white columns, the day before the New Hampshire primary, they recalled what a ride it has been already. Wesley Little, the current political chairman, remembered going home for Thanksgiving break and thinking Hillary Clinton had the nomination locked up. "And here, a month later, every single thing in the race is different, and it's the exact polar opposite of what it was," he said, guessing New Hampshire would go to Barack Obama. But it didn't.
"Being able to nimbly respond to changes has been the mock convention's strength, and that is due to our research," says Little, a senior economics major from Austin. Students who pose as state chairmen spend two years evaluating their state. They make contacts in the media, Little says, follow polling data, and even look to unusual predictors such as Intrade, an online prediction market, to see how people are betting on the race. Other students make sure that the convention looks and sounds like the real thing, with state flags, candidates' signs, and foam hats. And being college students, they add a twist of hip. In addition to the convention, the "states" will have parties into the wee hours of the morning, says media chair Yuji Huang, a politics major and junior from Lawrenceville, Ga. "That's the part that makes it young and fun and gives it sex appeal." The convention kicks off with a parade of floats and, this year, some donkeys—keeping a tradition of including the live version of the party's symbol. "Lucky for us it's a lot easier to find donkeys than find elephants," says Little. There have been elephants in the past: In 1980, "Jewel," the elephant in the movie Smokey and the Bandit II, visited Lexington for the parade. That was the same year that fireworks caught the Wisconsin float on fire.
The mock convention has a rich history that stemmed from William Jennings Bryan visiting the campus in 1907. His appearance inspired students to replicate the 1908 Democratic convention before it was held. The students selected Bryan as the nominee but not before supporters of the other candidate, Minnesota Gov. John A. Johnson, defected to an English classroom and named Johnson instead. This all occurred after the Kansas delegation got into a fistfight over how to cast its votes, as reported by the student newspaper, the Ring-tum Phi.
There was even more drama when 78-year-old Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley took the convention stage on April 30, 1956. The senator, who served as Harry Truman's vice president, then returned to the Senate, was delivering the keynote speech. "I would rather be a servant in the land of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty," Barkley said to loud applause. He then collapsed and died of a heart attack, halting the convention for several days.
While the event doesn't normally draw the nominees, it has attracted several rising stars. Then Govs. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both came to Washington and Lee four years before they clinched the Democratic nomination. Clinton joined a band on stage at Zollman's Pavilion and jammed with his saxophone long before his first late-night TV appearance. This year, Delaware Attorney General "Beau" Biden and Virginia's Sen. Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine are all slated to appear. "It's hard being such a small liberal arts school that no one has heard of," says senior Logan Gibson of Charlottesville, Va., who is booking the speakers. "But I feel like our leverage is huge; we have 1,800 students who are going to be in front of you from 50 different states, yelling for you—it doesn't matter if they're Republicans, Democrats, or independents—they are all gung-ho about this Democratic race."
And what a race to be predicting. At least history is on their side.