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State College And The Campaign Trail: Penn State’s History As A Presidential Stomping Ground

Although the next presidential election is more than 18 months away, Beto O’ Rourke marked the first 2020 candidate to visit Penn State on the campaign trailearly last week.

Hundreds of students and community members packed into the HUB to hear O’Rourke speak about various different points on his platform.

O’Rourke isn’t the first major candidate to roll through Happy Valley on his campaign, however. State College has long proven to be a popular stop on the campaign trail, and has been visited numerous times by other momentum-generating presidential hopefuls.

Here is a brief history of some of the highest-profile candidates and sitting presidents to visit or interact with Penn State over the last 50 years and 13 elections.

2016 Election

The 2016 election brought in visits from one major Democratic candidate and the representatives of another. Bernie Sanders made an appearance in Happy Valley, while Chelsea Clinton and Tim Kaine visited on behalf of Sanders’ democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Sanders arrived on campus in April 2016 right before the primaries, while Clinton appeared much closer to the election when she made a stop here in September. Kaine rounded off the Clinton campaign’s local effort when he spoke on campus that October.

In terms of crowd size, Sanders pulled an impressive audience of more than 6,600 people into Rec Hall, whereas Clinton opted to stop by the State College Democratic Headquarters. She hosted a “Phone Bank with Chelsea Clinton” event, which encouraged volunteers to come out and make calls encouraging people to register to vote. Kaine’s speech attempted to create momentum among student voters a mere 18 days before the general election.

Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump campaigned for his father downtown the day before the general election. Although Trump himself did not visit State College, Penn State and Joe Paterno did receive a shoutout when he visited a Pittsburgh rally in April 2016. Much debated whether Trump was talking about bringing back Paterno himself, or the Paterno statue, a spokesperson from the campaign later said Trump was referencing the statue.

Trump ultimately claimed Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, while Clinton won the majority vote in Centre County.

2012 Election

State College did not see any major campaign visits for the 2012 election. This absence may have occurred because President Barack Obama had already visited State College when he first ran for the presidency in 2008. He also spoke on campus in 2011, not in relation to his campaign, but rather to an “invite only” crowd on energy-efficient building solutions and investing in clean energy.

Regardless of this, the HUB still saw around 6,000 students come in to vote on Election Day. More than half of these students voted for Obama. At the time, Penn State football’s backup quarterback Steven Bench even received a write-in for a spot as a United States Senator.

Photo: Onward State

Voters saw Republican candidate Mitt Romney secure Centre County, but Obama claimed Pennsylvania.

2008 Election

The 2008 election brought then-senator Barack Obama to Old Main Lawn in late March, where he spoke to a crowd of 20,000 people. Obama was presented with a Penn State football jersey at the time.

Just prior to Obama’s visit, former President Bill Clinton visited State College to campaign on behalf of his wife, Hillary Clinton.

This stop sparked a tour that saw Chelsea and Bill Clinton visit numerous Commonwealth campuses, including Penn State Hershey, Penn State Altoona, and Penn State Brandywine to campaign on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Clinton herself visited Penn State Fayette on March 24, 2008.

2004 Election

George H.W. Bush stopped by Penn State on October 29, 2004. The former president visited the HUB to campaign for his son, George W. Bush, in his reelection bid. He was introduced by his granddaughters Jenna and Barbara Bush. Opening remarks were made by several Republican lawmakers, as well as Joe Paterno. This was Bush’s third visit to Penn State.

Vermont Governor Howard Dean pulled out the race for the Democrat Party’s nomination, but still visited campus on October 28, 2004 to participate in Penn State’s Distinguished Speaker Series. He returned last spring to take on Sean Spicer in the annual Great Debate event organized by the College Democrats and College Republicans.

2000 Election

George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore in the 2000 election is often remembered as a race defined by the infamous Florida vote count controversy. Neither candidate visited Penn State on the campaign trail, but Bush later spoke at a Future Farmers of America convention at Eisenhower Auditorium in 2005.

President Bill Clinton, however, visited Penn State in July of 2000 to attend the National Governor’s Association meeting.

Clinton’s second visit to the Creamery wasn’t as controversial as his first. He stopped by the Creamery for a nice scoop of Peachy Paterno, and took home three gallons of ice cream.

1996 Election

Clinton also visited Penn State in May 1996 to deliver The Graduate School commencement address — the second Penn State commencement address by a sitting U.S. president.

Photo: Penn State Libraries

During this visit, Clinton was honored with a University Scholars Medal, and he also made his infamous visit to the Creamery where he — *gasp* — mixed flavors. Air Force One flew directly into University Park airport, seemingly shutting down all flights on the airport’s single runway.

1992 Election

George H.W. Bush visited Penn State on September 23, 1992 for his own reelection campaign, addressing a crowd of 20,000 people on Old Main Lawn. He graced the stage with welcome music from the band playing “Fight on State” after receiving an introduction from Joe Paterno. He also gave a shoutout to the university’s first male feature baton twirler, John Mitchell.

It was a short trip for Bush, as he arrived in State College and departed on the same day. A full transcript of Bush’s speech can be foundhere.

1988 Election

Although there were no official campaign visits during this election cycle, the 1986 football National Champion Nittany Lions were welcomed to the White House by then-president Ronald Reagan in 1987 after defeating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.

“You of Penn State showed all the pundits and the oddsmakers who said at last that you’d met your match that they were just plain dead wrong,” Reagan told the team. “That so inspires me that the next time I go to see congress I might just wear that Nittany Lions hat.”

1984 Election

The 1984 election also did not see visits from either of the two major candidates — neither Reagan nor Walter Mondale came to Centre County.

Voter turnout in the general election averaged two thirds of registered voters at each local precinct, according to the Daily Collegian archives.

1980 Election

The 1980 election did not draw any major campaign visits, but incumbent president Jimmy Carter did frequently stop right outside of University Park for some leisurely fishing time during his presidency before he was unseated by Reagan.

He frequently visited Spruce Creek, where visitors today can still visit to see the cottage that Carter stayed in while visiting. According to The Daily Collegian archives, approximately 6,500 students registered in predominantly student precincts voted during this election. The three student-dominated precincts, however, experienced lower turnout than the 81 percent recorded nationwide.

1976 Election

In the 1976 presidential election, Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford. Although neither made official visits to campus, Gerald Ford did come to Penn State in 1978 and spoke at the HUB.

He made the trip as a part of a campaign visit for local Republican candidates, and ate at Gatsby’s diner, which closed in 1989.

1972 Election

In 1972, neither President Richard Nixon nor his opponent George McGovern made official campaign visits to campus. Perhaps Nixon’s absence was due to his 1969 decision to declare Texas the champions of College Football, even though Penn State had gone undefeated with an 11-0 season.

Joe Paterno fired back in 1973, famously questioning, “‘I’ve wondered how President Nixon could know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969.'”

1968 Election

In 1968, Richard Nixon nor vice president Hubert Humphrey visited Penn State. According to The Daily Collegian archives, student Democrats felt that they couldn’t support Humphrey in his candidacy.

Nixon did visit State College in 1969, however, for the funeral of his uncle Ernest Nixon, who worked for Penn State’s agricultural facility for 37 years. President Nixon made quite the appearance, choosing Beaver Stadium as his helicopter’s personal landing pad.

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a senior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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