Oct 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' college dilemma

Image of a letter jacket with the letter falling off
llustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republicans are hoping less-concentrated youth voter turnout on campuses that are closed or scaled back this semester can help them from Maine to Florida — in congressional races as well as Trump’s fight.

The big picture: The coronavirus will hinder both parties' ability to mobilize new voters on college campuses this year, but Democrats may be disproportionately affected.

Where it matters: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Iowa and Maine are home to battleground districts where the youth vote could have the most impact, according to a weighted index created by Tufts.

Between the lines: Quads have always presented a target-rich environment for Democrats. But registering first-year students and getting upperclassmen to vote when classes are remote is proving to be difficult.

What they’re saying: "I follow colleges because colleges on campuses in congressional districts go to Democrats. But if colleges aren’t in, it’s a much easier race. No one is paying attention to that," House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told Axios.

  • "College kids don't usually vote in an off-presidential year,” he said. “But in a presidential year? They can earn you thousands of votes.”
  • A source close to the Trump campaign said, “Democrats bank tens of thousands of votes every cycle on these campuses. They register and turn out thousands of voters on these campuses. It's a totally overlooked part of how COVID-19 will affect November.”

By the numbers: Turnout among college students was 48.3% in 2016, according to data collected by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tisch College at Tufts University.

  • Young voters favored Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump 55% to 37%, according to exit polls.
  • But while the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who registered to vote in 2020 is already higher than in November 2016, there's an important caveat: Registration among 18- to 19-year-olds is far behind, according to Tisch.
  • In Pennsylvania, registration among young people (18–24) is down 3% compared to 2016.
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