Will College Students Show Up?

Several discussions at the Democratic National Convention have focused on whether college students will turn out for Obama, as they did in 2008.

September 6, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Democratic party faithful gathered here for their convention are, as is the custom, focusing on the positive: speaker after speaker has praised President Obama’s legislative victories and his administration’s policies from the past four years.

But judging by the panel discussions put on for delegates' benefit just outside the security perimeter of the Time Warner Cable arena, at least one concern is bubbling up. The question has ramifications for college campuses around the country in the two months that remain before Election Day: this year, will young people -- especially college students, a group that backed Obama overwhelmingly in 2008 -- show up?

At several events dealing with “young voters,” a term that at times seemed to loosely encompass nearly all Americans under 40, advocacy groups and youth voter activists insisted that they would, with many predicting that enthusiasm would increase once the general election campaign begins in earnest.

Obama’s appeal to college students and young adults in 2008 is well-documented. At the Iowa caucuses in early 2008, the victory that kicked off his journey to the presidency, Obama lost among all voters older than 30, John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, said during a panel discussion Tuesday. “If not for millennials in Iowa,” Della Volpe said, referring to those young voters, “it’s likely that Hillary Clinton and not Barack Obama would be president.”

During the general election, voters under 30 flipped three states from Republican to Democratic -- Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina, where Obama won by 48 percentage points. Nationwide, he won by 34 points among young voters.

Della Volpe, who has polled young voters 22 times since 2000, said that Democrats shouldn’t count on college students to support them in such large numbers this year. Republicans have worked hard to win over disaffected 2008 Obama voters who, since graduating college, have struggled to find jobs and repay student loans. (Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for the vice presidency, made the pitch in one of the most memorable lines of his convention speech last week: “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”)

But Della Volpe said his polling data suggest that Obama’s college student base from 2008, voters now in their early to mid-20s, still support him. It’s the younger voters -- college students too young to vote the last time around -- who should concern Democrats. 

“It’s a myth that people turn 18 and automatically become Democrats,” Della Volpe said. In Wisconsin, Obama dominated among voters aged 18 to 24 in 2008. But last fall, in the election to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker, the governor won 18- to 24-year-olds by 3 points, helping him retain his post.

And while Obama has kept solid approval ratings among 25- to 29-year-old voters, who were college students and recent graduates in 2008, his position is shakier among the youngest voters. Forty-two percent of 18- and 19-year-olds describe themselves as conservative, Della Volpe said, and while their older siblings’ political worldviews could have been shaped by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq, the youngest voters have been influenced by the recession and the economic crisis.

“It’s a very different world for the younger part of this generation compared to the older part,” he said.

At the Harvard event, and at other public discussions here Tuesday and Wednesday, young activists disputed whether the enthusiasm gap exists at all. Several pointed out that the prolonged primary campaign in 2008, which began nearly two years before the general election, got many students involved in Democratic politics earlier than they would be this year. Others said college students’ supposed apathy has become a preferred media storyline, just as those voters’ overwhelming support for Obama was four years earlier.

“This is a very popular topic in the media this year, that suddenly young people don’t care anymore,” said Rod Snyder, president of Young Democrats, at a panel discussion Wednesday that featured celebrities and activists in their late 20s and early 30s (including Chelsea Clinton, 32; Kal Penn, 35; and America Ferrara, 28).

Fifteen million more young voters have registered since 2008, the group has a high turnout rate for registered voters, and efforts to get young people registered for 2012 are just ramping up, Snyder said.

Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy group, said that for all the discussion about young voters in 2008, they were 18 percent of the electorate that year. In 2004, they made up 17 percent.

There is a perception that “either it’s 2008, and young people are huge, or they just somehow fall off the face of the earth,” Smith said. “That’s not what happened -- you look at the data; young people are going to vote.”

Still, he said, neither candidate has laid out major new policy positions that could influence young voters. And he said he thinks neither party has fully realized the importance of college affordability as an issue for voters under 30. In intergenerational panel discussions Smith led in Charlotte on Wednesday and in Tampa last week, concern about college costs crossed party lines.

“It is a defining issue for this generation,” Smith said.

Higher Ed at the Convention: Day 2

Democrats continued to emphasize their support for the Pell Grant on Wednesday night, the second night of proceedings at the convention. Among the supporters speaking briefly to delegates was a student at Miami Dade College, Johanny Adames, who said the grant was instrumental in helping her attend college.

“President Obama knows that education is how kids like me can follow a path of opportunity and work their way into the middle class,” Adames said. “And he fought to expand Pell Grants so nearly 10 million young Americans can have that opportunity. 

(In an assertion that has popped up recently into supporters’ and surrogates’ statements here, Adames's remarks included that the president had “doubled the size of Pell Grants.” While domestic discretionary spending on the grants has doubled, in part because more students are eligible due to the faltering economy, the maximum grant for an individual has increased by less than $1,000, from $4,731 in 2008 to $5,550 in 2012.)

And President Clinton -- the night's headline speaker -- included detailed praise for income-based repayment on student loans and the switch to federal direct lending, both of which built on Clinton-era policies. (It was a rare political appearance for student loans, which have been largely overshadowed by Pell Grants at the convention despite the interest rate fight earlier this year.) He also linked rising college prices to the oft-cited statistic that the United States is 16th in the world in the percentage of young adults with college degrees, saying that the unaffordability of college has led students to drop out and America to fall behind.

Under income-based repayment, "no one will have to drop out of college for fear they can't repay their debt," Clinton said.

Another speaker from a college campus: Sandra Fluke, a recent graduate of Georgetown Law School who rose to fame earlier this year as an activist on women’s issues when she spoke up in favor of insurance coverage for birth control.

The most prominent faculty member at the convention, Massachusetts Senate candidate and Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, didn't address education issues (except to say that some families were "fooled by student loans" as part of the economic meltdown) in her prime-time address, but said Obama "believes in a country where we invest in education, in roads and bridges, in science, and in the future, so we can create new opportunities." And among the middle-class Americans she said she'd fight for was "the student in Worcester who worked hard to finish his college degree, and now he's drowning in debt."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan also spoke, touting the president’s changes to the student loan program and his fight to keep interest rates from doubling in July. “President Obama also knows that higher education is an economic necessity,” Duncan said.

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Libby A. Nelson

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