Young voters, in some ways, performed as many expected in the Iowa caucuses Monday. They overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, for example.
But what young Republican voters would end up doing was a little more of a mystery.
Ted Cruz, whose outreach to younger voters has been limited, won with more support from voters between the ages of 18 and 29 than any of the other GOP candidates, according to entrance polling analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). With support from 26 percent of young caucusgoers, Cruz beat Marco Rubio’s 23 percent, Donald Trump’s 20 percent and Rand Paul’s 14 percent.
That represents a fairly significant shift. Two months ago, a Harvard Institute of Politics poll had Trump and Ben Carson ahead with likely young Republican voters and Cruz lagging in the single digits.
Recent data on the political views of college students, rather than youth in general or millennials (which some organizations have defined as anyone younger than 35), are pretty rare. But support for a specific candidate by students and people under 29 “doesn’t vary much,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE. Because college access has expanded in recent decades, she said, “The college student population is more similar to general youth than it was in the past.”
A record number of young Republicans -- 22,415, or 12 percent of caucusgoers -- turned up in Iowa on Monday.
“That’s a really positive indicator,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “When they are welcomed, young people respond.”
By reaching out, she said, candidates “can inspire young people, but they have to do that work thoughtfully and not write them off as people that don’t vote, because I think today’s election shows they really do come out.”
But Why Cruz?
Over the last several months Cruz has emerged as a top candidate nationally. Monday’s caucuses also took place in Iowa, with its mostly white and heavily evangelical population. “If any state’s youth would elect Ted Cruz, this would be one of them,” said Kawashima-Ginsberg of Monday’s results. It’s important to remember, she said, that unlike the general election, primaries, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, are “more up close and personal,” more idiosyncratic by state and by county.
“Ted Cruz has also done some outreach” to young voters, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. But it’s been “less in person, more on social media,” where Cruz has been “really good” at shaping a strong, active personality online.
Cruz’s efforts have lagged behind those of Rubio and Paul, who both have made concerted efforts to engage young voters and college students in person and on campuses, which is a vital element of connecting with that audience. (Paul suspended his campaign on Wednesday.)
Those inroads proved successful in some instances. “I was surprised at the amount of Rubio support,” said Janelle Smithson, chair of the University of Iowa College Republicans, of her caucusing experience. After Rubio, who swept the night in Smithson's Iowa City precinct, which includes the University of Iowa, Paul and Trump had the most support.
Visible pro-Cruz students, however, seem to be few and far in between on campus. “I know one or two [Cruz] supporters,” Smithson said. “They’re not that organized, so you don’t hear a lot from them.” Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have done the most, by far, to reach out college students, she said, citing Paul in particular. “Senator Paul definitely takes the cake on that one.”
The Kentucky senator didn’t cause quite the furor his father, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul, did in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, however, when 48 percent of young voters went with the elder Paul.
Trump’s 20 Percent of the Young Republican Vote
In October, the only support Trump appeared have on college campuses was that of amused students running satirical pro-Trump Facebook pages. No longer.
One of those joke pages, AU Students for Trump, has since closed down because “Donald Trump is no longer a joke, so it feels wrong to keep this page where he's treated like one,” its founder wrote in a December post. “The problem he poses has become more serious, and as a result our response to him must be equally serious.”
A very much real group has taken its place. Founded in October by Ryan Fournier, a freshman at Campbell University in North Carolina, Students for Trump now has a presence on more than 30 campuses, about 300 members and a Twitter account with 24,000 followers.
“I think that a lot of people are afraid to come out and support Donald Trump even if they agree with a lot of what he has to say,” Fournier wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “I have met a lot of people that said they were voting for him, but also said they did not tell anyone else about it. Many students I have spoken with think it is refreshing to see someone with so much love and compassion for his country, especially when he has given up so much for this election (Macy's Deal, Pageants, etc) [sic]. A lot of the students that are with us now were looking for some sort of group to get involved in at the time, but they did not find one until we came along.”
Fournier explained his own support for Trump via an extended comparison to the short story “A&P” by John Updike. He explained that the three girls walking into the store wearing only their bikinis was a rebellious, Trumpesque act at a time when bikini-clad shopping was very taboo. Eventually, the protagonist quits, because “he did not want to conform to the society that was put before him by his family, his boss, etc.”
“To me,” he said, “Donald Trump is that positive and new change that is needed back in Washington.”
At the University of Iowa last week, several members of the football and wrestling teams appeared on stage with Trump, endorsed him and gave him an Iowa football jersey with his name on it. (The university later released a statement saying the students spoke only for themselves, not the university, and that they had not broken National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.)
Trump's message seems to resonate for a wide variety of Republican-leaning students, according to Fournier. “Surprisingly it is very random on who supports Donald Trump,” he said. “The typical outcry supporter in the minds of many are white males. However we have found that to be not true at all. We have came across a plethora of supporters from other ethnic backgrounds.”
That notion tracks with some recent research out of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. According to a national poll of 1,800 voters conducted by Matthew MacWilliams, president of a political communications firm and a Ph.D. candidate at the university, age is not a statistically significant predictor of Trump support. Nor is race, income or education level.
The only two variables that can reliably predict support for Trump: authoritarianism and fear of terrorism. And the former far more than the latter, MacWilliams said. “All these variables, which should matter when it comes to Trump support, really don’t matter, statistically.”