In the first week of December, joke ticket Will Gansa will face off with Ella Cheng in a run-off election for Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President. Gansa, running on a platform of waffle fries, ripe fruit, and ‘bike reform,’ won 44% of the popular vote to Cheng’s 32%, in the first round of elections in late November.
The joke candidate is not a phenomenon unique to Princeton’s student government. Harvard has a history with joke candidates, the most recent one being the 2013 campaign of Gus Mayopoulos and Sam Clark, who ran on a platform of tomato basil soup and thicker toilet paper. After winning the popular vote in the 2013 election and promising to resign once inaugurated, Mayopoulos changed his mind—he stayed on to serve as Undergraduate Council (UC) President, his running mate—Clark—stepped down, and an opponent—Sietse K. Goffard—served as vice president for the 2013-2014 term.
The satire campaign apparently revealed “serious problems” that students had with Harvard’s Undergraduate Council (UC), Goffard told The Harvard Crimson. Those serious problems had to do with the UC’s relevancy, and Mayopoulos made improving relevancy a priority of his Presidency.
“We made communication with students a huge priority, and we tried to use humor to get people to actually open our emails,” Mayopoulos said. “We sent out school-wide emails about every two weeks, filled them with barely relevant gifs, and updated everyone on what their student government was doing—or was trying to do—for them.”
Gansa’s campaign, like Mayopoulos’ joke campaign, raises questions about the relevancy of student government.
“Every joke campaign only gathers steam if it does have a serious message or a serious concern,” Cheng said of Gansa’s campaign. “A lot of people who support Will are disappointed with USG and think it’s not as powerful as it could be or think it’s it is out of touch. I ran because I had the same sentiment.”
Though Gansa’s campaign maintains its humorous tone in his latest video, the video also criticizes USG for being out of touch by using bike metaphors.
“Under Government Club’s tyranny of incumbency, the wheels have just stopped turning” Gansa said in the latest video posted on his website. “USG is filled with caring and innovative people who work hard for the school, but some of the students I’ve met feel like we’re riding a stationary bike.”
At the core of the Gansa debate is a discussion of the limitations and potential power of Princeton’s student government.
“Maybe it’s less about the candidates and more about what USG can and cannot do,” Walker Carpenter ’17, an ambivalent Gansa supporter, said.
Having spoken with Mayopoulos at a conference, Cheng is under the impression that Harvard’s student government has little influence, while Princeton’s has more real political sway with the administration.
“I personally really do think that the administration really does take our opinion seriously, especially because Princeton is undergraduate focused,” Cheng said.
Cheng cited three examples—the administration publishing the FAQ page on mental health policy, getting the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off, and pushing back the PDF deadline until after midterms—as important policy changes that the administration enacted thanks to USG effort.
At the end of his term, Mayopoulos believes that his presidency helped students understand what the UC was trying to do and succeeded in making it more relevant. He sent gif-filled emails to keep students updated. He tested the limits of the UC, demanding a 250k increase in the UC’s budget. He covered Cambridge’s deep puddles with sandbags with “UC” written on them. He wore a regal costume, “to mixed results,” Mayopoulos said. But come 2014 election season, voter turnout increased only marginally, by five percent. Though the joke candidate victory upset the game, turnout, a measure of voter investment in the system, remained the same.
While Harvard’s Mayopoulos is not a perfect comparison, his campaign and presidency reveals what is fundamentally at stake in Princeton’s student government presidential run-off election: how do Princeton undergraduates understand the power of their student government? Electing Gansa, if the consequences are similar to that of Mayopoulos’ term, does not fundamentally change the relationship students have with student-government or that the University has with student government.