CALAIS, Maine — As Calais High School goes, so goes the nation — at least that is what has happened for nearly three decades.
For 30 years, students have passed through teacher Rick Chaffey’s government class, which during presidential elections has led school-wide mock elections, each time correctly picking the next president of the United States.
Last week, more than 150 students, teachers and staff voted nearly 2-to-1 in favor of Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain. The final tally was 90 votes for Obama, 47 for McCain. The other presidential candidates split the remaining votes.
The high school vote also gave the nod to incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
This year’s election has generated an enthusiasm among students not seen in recent years, Chaffey said.
As Election Day approaches, discussions in and out of the classroom have been spirited yet friendly, and Thursday was no exception. There are more political signs plastered on the high school walls than can be found on all of the lawns and roads in Washington County.
Gabrielle Wright, 17, of Calais put up some of those signs. Although she isn’t old enough to vote on Nov. 4, she is an Obama fan. She said it was negative campaigning against Obama that sparked her support. “I was like, wow, how could somebody that terrible be running,” she said of Obama. She decided to do her own research and chose Obama.
Wright watched Thursday as fellow students Merrick Harding, 18, of Robbinston, Janelle Sapiel, 17, of Pleasant Point and Susan Ames, 17, of Calais engaged in an energetic discussion before class.
Harding was pushing hard for McCain, while Sapiel was defending Obama.
“Obama is going to win,” Sapiel insisted.
“It’s McCain,” Harding responded.
Harding is excited about voting this year. “I feel important. I feel like I am giving something back,” he said before his impromptu discussion with Sapiel and Ames.
Another McCain supporter, Greg Jackson, 18, of Calais, also votes this year. “I don’t really follow politics that much, but I just get out of it what my dad tells me and he’s a Republican so I just tend to lean that way,” Jackson said.
Although Ames is too young to vote, she was upbeat about the results of the mock election. “From what I have heard from past people and teachers, Calais High School has never been wrong,” she said.
D.J. Osborne, 17, of Calais, who is one month shy of being able to vote, also was tuned in to the discussion. “Whoever wins it is going to be history,” he said before the discussion started. “The first female vice president, the first African-American president. So that is kind of exciting about the whole election. Everyone says that we are not ready for different people, but I feel we are ready for a change.”
The election has made students more aware of campaign rhetoric. “We’ve learned a lot about what people think and how negative media and mud-slinging affects what people think,” Ames said.
Ames said young people are more interested in this year’s election because of Obama’s youth appeal and the influences of teenage-oriented television networks such as MTV, which is urging young people to vote.
“People are becoming more politically aware at a younger age,” Ames said.
Chaffey grinned as he watched his students roll out their ideas on each of the candidates.
“This is a great class,” he said. “They know the issues. I assign the reading materials; I try to stay totally unbiased. Simply present them with materials and let them follow their own pathways. They do a great job of it.”
Chaffey said the last time he had seen so much energy over a campaign was when John F. Kennedy ran.
“Having lived through the Kennedy time period, just as a young fella of course, there is a lot of similarity,” he said. “When you can get any teenager excited about something that is usually an adult field, you’ve been successful.”