In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, just one candidate visited Norman: future president Donald Trump, and it was only for a reported fundraiser.
A year away from the 2020 presidential election, three candidates have already spent time in Norman, with more potentially on the way.
Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders as well as former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke all visited Norman in August and September of this year. But considering Oklahoma carries just seven electoral college votes and hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, it is unusual that candidates have decided to make visiting Norman a priority.
Taz Al-Michael, OU student and president of the College Democrats of Oklahoma, said he feels candidates are coming to Norman because the large field of Democratic candidates creates an increased need to secure primary votes.
“A lot of these candidates are visiting Oklahoma because every state is pretty much up for grabs,” Al-Michael said. “It’s not just the general election in which swing states are where people are having to focus in. These candidates are fighting for primary voters.”
The desire for primary votes has led some candidates to make visiting Oklahoma a priority, sometimes independent of community outreach.
“I remember the Beto O’Rourke campaign calling me the Thursday before school at 4 p.m. asking if I could put something together on Monday, the first day of school,” Al-Michael said. “I really didn’t know how to say anything other than yes.”
In addition to allowing candidates to meet with voters, their visits have also enabled the candidates to establish relationships with OU students and Norman residents. This allows students and residents to gain a better understanding of who the potential future presidents are as people, something international business and marketing freshman Jayke Flaggert said he has sincerely appreciated.
“It’s really easy to look in the media and see people portrayed as a bad guy or just things they say be misconstrued,” Flaggert, who has attended all three visits, said. “It was really nice to kind of put that personal feeling behind it, that they’re human too. … The perspective of them we see in the media isn’t exactly who they are in person. Take politics out of it, you can be a good human being and still disagree with people.”
For Norman Mayor Breea Clark, the presidential candidate visits have been beneficial for residents, but she also emphasized that she hopes candidates from both sides of the aisle continue to visit.
“Everyone is welcome,” Clark said. “Everyone deserves an opportunity to engage with our residents because we’re passionate, we’re educated and we vote.”
While in Norman, several of the candidates showed their support for OU, as O’Rourke and Sanders both wore OU hats and Booker received an OU jersey. But they also showed their support for students, which left an impression on students like Carla Guevara, who serves as the OU College Democrats president. Her organization is specific to OU whereas Al-Michael's encompasses the entire state.
“Having Democrats come to a red state, it definitely means a lot because it means that we’re being heard,” Guevara said. “It means that we’re being advocated for. And honestly it just kind of lets the progressive side of people have a space where they can actually talk to the representative.”
Even for students who don’t agree with the messages of all the candidates, the visits allowed them to gain a better understanding of who the candidates are as people and hear their ideas, Flaggert said.
“I think the best thing you can do as an educated voter is, you can’t just disagree with someone to disagree with them,” Flaggert said. “You’ve got to hear them out, hear what they have to say, and then decide if you want to vote for them or not. … That’s kind of the reason I went.”
Clark said more candidates could potentially be coming soon, as she communicated with the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro. Clark said the whole city has worked to make the candidate’s visits successful and she hopes the burst of visits this fall is a sign of things to come in the future.
“Everyone’s been on board and making it happen,” Clark said. “It brings people to the community. We’re a city of festivals. It would be great to be a city of presidential candidates as well.”