On March 17, Ohio’s Democrats will tell the nation whom they support in the 2020 presidential election – but Ohio Wesleyan University students will have made their own choice weeks earlier.

During most presidential campaign seasons since 1884, OWU students have held mock political conventions to nominate a presidential candidate.

This year’s OWU mock convention will be held Feb. 21 and 22 on the Delaware campus, making it what might be the longest-surviving series of such events at any U.S. college, said Ashley Biser, faculty adviser for this year’s convention.

A history of OWU’s conventions, written in 2008, notes the students of 1884 sent a telegram to James G. Blaine, telling him he was their nominee. He also was the actual Republican nominee, later defeated by Grover Cleveland.

The mock conventions typically have emphasized education and entertainment over prediction. Students debate issues identified by actual candidates, Biser said, but in 2016, they gave the GOP nomination to Stephen Colbert.

Since 1972, the conventions have focused on the nonincumbent political party; hence, the 2020 event will name Democratic nominees for president and vice president.

Biser said the convention requires extensive work and research by the participants, who seek to present accurate portrayals of the candidates’ views.

A core group of 20 students began the effort in early 2019, she said, holding mock sessions on candidate platforms. More students are being recruited to act as delegates at the convention, which will be held at Gray Chapel inside University Hall, 61 S. Sandusky St. in Delaware.

“Ohio Wesleyan works to prepare our students to be engaged citizens and leaders,” said OWU President Rock Jones. “The mock convention provides an exciting and engaging way for them to learn how to take part in civil dialogue and how to effect change within the system.

“The mock convention has been part of the OWU experience for 136 years, and I think now is one of the most important times in history for our students to take part and to participate in the national political discourse in a meaningful way.”

Students portraying eight Democratic presidential contenders got into character for a Jan. 23 speed-dating-style event at Hamilton-Williams Campus Center that allowed other students and participants to question the candidates directly.

Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang was represented by Mallorie Watts, an OWU sophomore and Delaware Hayes High School graduate.

“It’s been a phenomenal experience,” she said of the convention preparations. “I’ve learned a lot about organizing events like this. ... We’ve all had really interesting conversations because we all kind of stand behind different candidates.”

Even though the candidates’ stances differ, she said, “we’re a good example of how you can get over that and how you can actually talk about your differences and kind of find a common ground.”

OWU senior Dylan Hays of Columbus, representing Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said the mock political process has been educational.

“We’ve learned a little more about each candidate, definitely,” he said. “You have to kind of almost master each candidate, like what their policies are, what their perspectives are and why they think that way. So I’ve definitely learned a lot more about the current system. I’ve been really active in watching the debates.”

OWU senior Ahmed Hamed of Hilliard represented Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“The study of politics is incredibly fascinating, both here in the U.S. and international politics, as well,” Hamed said. “Knowing how our political process works is incredibly important. It directs the directions we move in as a country. It affects us on a day-to-day basis, whether on the local, state or national level. ... No matter how much you know, there’s always room to learn more about the candidates, their issues, how they feel about different topics.

“The biggest thing,” he said, “is always to continue learning, continue researching and keeping your information up to date as much as possible.”

OWU junior Alexis Greene of Springfield represented Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“I wanted to be a part of this tradition on our campus,” Greene said.

She wanted to participate because the Democratic Party represents her views, she said.

She said she’s been interested in politics since her mother took her to a George W. Bush rally, and she interned with the Ohio Democratic Party, serving as a campaign manager for some candidates near her home.

Watts said she volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

“I’ve always been really into politics. ... I got involved with the mock convention because this would help me if I ever want to organize political campaigns or groups,” she said.

Hays said he changed his major to sociology and social justice because he was disenfranchised by the 2016 election results.

He said he is the first member of his working-class family to attend college, and he objects to President Donald Trump’s decision to appropriate money from the Pell Grant Program, which provides educational grants to families making less than $50,000 a year.

The divisiveness of the national political climate has had at least a slight effect on the mock convention, Hays said.

Despite the fact that a Republican president means OWU is holding a mock Democratic convention, he said, “I’ve spoken to some conservative students here who just don’t want anything to do with it because it’s a Democratic convention.”

Hamed agreed the nature of politics has made it more difficult to get some students “rallied around the fun and the learning experience” of the mock convention.

Those who have attended mock convention events, by contrast, have understood its spirit and intentions, he said.

Other students participated in the 2016 mock Republican convention, he said, even though they had no intention of actually voting for Republicans.

The mock convention will begin at 4 p.m. Feb. 21. After a dinner break, platform debates will begin at 7 p.m. and continue into the night. The convention will resume at 9 a.m. Feb. 22 and conclude around noon.

The event is free and open to the public.

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