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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Student Vote: How Significant?

At The New York Times Opinion Pages ‘Room for Debate’ forum, the topic is “Do College Students’ Votes Really Matter in an Election?” Some observations from the forum participants:
GOP message guru Frank Luntz opines,

…Young voters respond, above all else, to authenticity. They know a fraud when they see it, and they flock in droves to those politicians who say what they mean, and mean what they say.
And while the rallies in 2016 are not quite as large as 2008, even more young people are participating in the political discourse via social media. Snapchat and Twitter have replaced the convention of a coffee shop and the “water cooler” conservation as the place where youth gather to talk politics. Even old journalists and pundits (like me) have learned we need to go there if we want to be heard. We have learned from people less than half our age. They set the trends now.
True, youth engagement and support (alone) still cannot win an election, but it can deliver the credibility needed to drive the public discussion.

Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., observes:

…a large portion of students don’t get to the voting booth or take the time to fill out an absentee ballot…The problem is that political parties mobilize voters around their physical residential address: We vote in-person based on our place of residence. While big data has allowed parties to know increasingly more about us, without a consistent residential address the ability to use that data to ultimately get a person to become a voter is very difficult.
College students are the poster children of this problem. Many live in dorms that are increasingly secured, inaccessible to the party’s volunteer doorknockers or leaflet droppers.
Additionally, many students don’t or can’t vote where they go to school anyway. Students live on campus for eight or nine months of the year, and whether they can vote where they go to school depends on the registration laws of the state…As students, they are a largely unreliable voting block.

It may be that the best response to the student residence and voter eligibility issues cited by Kidd is automatic registration and court challenges to Republican-driven measures to suppress the student vote, such as North Carolina’s voter i.d. measure.
Columbia University sophomore and NPR contributor Bianca Brooks, cites a dearth of open political discourse, leaving students who are not already firmly comitted to a particular candidate feeling ostracized and uninvolved. “Students who can’t “pick a side” are left feeling isolated and politically apathetic,” says Brooks. “If the university does not reclaim and reform political discourse, students will be unable to find the middle ground necessary not just to be sensible voters, but effective political leaders of the future.”
But Wesleyan University sophomore and military veteran Bryan Stascavage sees impressive student activism and social media participation, which he believes can have an impact, despite low youth voter turnout. In addition to a growing presence on Reddit, “Young voters …start trends on Twitter, create content for Facebook, and push stories to go viral. They are the new grassroots, using new media to spread information about their candidates to the general public….The youth vote is a valuable constituency. They have the time, energy, will and ability to impact politics in America, even though they may not show up on Election Day.”
Young voters played a critical, perhaps pivotal role in the 2008 presidential election, and student support of Obama’s campaign may have helped win votes from non-student youth via peer influence. Young people with at least some college experience vote at approximately twice the rate as non-college youth.
But most of student energy in 2016 seems to be concentrated in support of the Sanders campaign. So there is growing concern about attrition of student activism and voter participation if Sanders does not win the Democratic nomination.
Perhaps even more important in the longer range, students and young voters in general have a poor turnout rate in midterm elections, which helps Republicans severely restrict the President’s ability to secure progressive legislation. In 2010 for example, the first midterm following all of the excitement of the 2008 Obama victory, voters age 18-29 had a turnout rate of just 24 percent, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, compared with 54.5 percent of 18 to 29 year-old voters in 2008.
Democrats must find a way to maximize youth turnout in 2016, but a more creative and muscular effort to mobilize young voters in the midterms is long-overdue. This could include more funding for Democratic partty activities on campus, voter registration rallies, on-line teach-ins, concerts and other cultural events to educate and motivate young voters and build their interest. In terms of issues, Democratic candidates must dramatize their commitment to making higher education more affordable and providing entry-level jobs in stark contrast to the Republicans’ lack of credible reforms.
If Democrats can raise student turnout and increase their share of the vote by just a few percentage points, it could prove to be a cost-effective investment in a more stable Democratic majority.

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