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Credit: Linda Ting

The 2020 presidential election may be more than a year and a half away — but that’s not stopping Penn students from throwing their support behind their preferred candidates.

Over the last few weeks, several student groups supporting individual candidates in the Democratic primary — Penn for Bernie, Penn for Beto, Penn for Pete, and Penn for Kamala — have created Instagram pages and begun planning meetings. Politically inclined Penn students are enthusiastic to get behind presidential hopefuls, even while Penn's official Democratic student organization is waiting to endorse candidates until 2020.

Penn for Bernie President and College freshman Jack Cahill said he heard that a Penn for Bernie Club existed in 2016 and he decided to reach out to the group. Although most members of the group had already graduated, he said the previous members assisted him in setting up an updated version for Sanders' 2020 campaign.

“They gave me some advice on what positions there were, what events they did, and a little bit on how they raised money,” Cahill said. “They gave me good guidance on where I should go.”

The independent senator from Vermont is currently in second place in Democratic polls, with an average of 23% support nationwide, according to the RealClear Politics polling average. Cahill said he favors Sanders because he believes he is uniquely positioned to recapture the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which voted Republican in 2016.

Penn for Beto presidents and Wharton freshmen Shreya Rao and Lesly Villanueva are supporting former Texas congressman O'Rourke, who mounted a spirited yet unsuccessful senatorial campaign against Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in November.

“We’re both from Texas. Shreya worked for [O'Rourke's Senate] campaign,” Villanueva said, praising his moderate record. “Our views align with his views and we just really support Beto and everything that he does.”

O'Rourke is polling at about 6% nationally, which leaves him in sixth place in the early field.

Penn for Pete Co-president and College sophomore Sam Kaufmann said the group’s leadership shared a common love for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. The 37-year-old has catapulted from a virtual unknown to fourth place in the polls in a matter of weeks, with his national support registering at about 7.5%.

“Almost all of the leadership of Penn for Pete came to a love of Pete Buttigieg and his message more or less independently,” Kaufmann said, who was impressed by the mayor's focus on local communities. “It occurred to me to start [Penn for Pete] the very first moment other people started clubs for other candidates.”

Penn Democrats President and College sophomore EJ Carlson said Dems has allowed the groups to advertise on the Dems Facebook page to garner more support.

"We are promoting these groups to members and letting them know when new groups for candidates are formed," Carlson said. "As long as they're members of Dems, they're free to post about events for candidates in our Facebook page."

Cahill, whose pro-Sanders group was featured in the Penn Dems page, appreciated the promotion.

"They’ve done that for Penn for Kamala, Penn for Beto, Penn for Pete Buttigieg,” Cahill said. “They seemed happy to just post it just in case anyone wanted to see it." 

While Penn Dems is helping the groups raise their profiles, the organization itself has not yet endorsed anyone for president.

In March, Penn Dems Political Director and College sophomore Owen Voutsinas-Klose said the group was not going to endorse a presidential candidate until March 2020, as they want to hear firsthand from visiting candidates and conduct extensive research on the potential Democratic nominees for president. The group endorsed Hillary Clinton in February 2016, and Barack Obama back in 2008.

Former Vice President and Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Joe Biden is leading the overall Democratic race, having just officially declared on April 25. The declared field includes 20 candidates, with big names like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and lesser-known candidates like author Marianne Williamson.

Despite not officially endorsing a candidate yet, Carlson said Penn Dems is hoping to introduce the various candidate groups to members in the coming months.

"We're planning on doing an exploratory type of programming in the fall, where we invite them to our meeting to ask them to present about their candidate to our club," Carlson said. 

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