Politics & Government

Campus collision course: 2020 Democrats battle for the youth vote

The 2020 campaign has arrived on college campuses—and at a few high schools—as Democratic presidential candidates scramble to establish relationships with young people, aiming to cultivate volunteers and stoke enthusiasm before school lets out for the summer.

Cory Booker personally phones local leaders of the College Democrats in New Hampshire, and his team has started recruiting college and high school volunteers in Iowa.

Kamala Harris huddled with the University of South Carolina’s student body president during a recent visit to this early primary state, and she lamented student loan debt on a radio station serving South Carolina State University.

And Elizabeth Warren’s campaign hosted an “organizing brainstorm” at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last week, and she appeared at a CNN town hall on Monday held at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Democratic White House hopefuls are keenly aware of the power of the youth vote, which played a critical role in powering Bernie Sanders’s competitive 2016 bid and Barack Obama’s victorious 2008 campaign. Now the 2020 candidates are looking to make early inroads with this important voting bloc in a wide-open race.

“I haven’t gotten the impression from anyone that there’s a clear person everyone’s clamoring for on campus,” said Lucas Meyer, president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats. “It’s just like, we have an incredible field of candidates. Why wouldn’t you want to hear from a U.S. senator or the governor of a state?”

Here are four takeaways about the 2020 state of play on campus, based on interviews with more than a dozen youth activists and Democrats who work with students.

Sanders can’t count on the same level of youth support as he had in 2016.

The Vermont senator, a favorite of young progressives in the 2016 primary, maintains palpable pockets of support from South Carolina to Nevada.

“The last time we had a positive Democratic national campaign was Bernie’s 2016 run,” said John Solomon, the president of Young Democrats at the University of Nevada, Reno, where Sanders visited last fall. “The energy he had—people see him with the good side of the Democratic Party.”

“We all know him so well, since 2016,” added Davis Bernstein, the president of the Keene State College Democrats in New Hampshire, where he said Sanders and Harris are generating the most buzz, followed by Warren. “People like his ideas, they speak in a way that, even though he’s an older gentleman, he really speaks to college students pretty often.”

While Sanders has his core supporters, other college leaders caution that he can’t bank on enjoying the same widespread enthusiasm he had among young people last time as he now faces a bigger, younger and more diverse field.

“There are a few people who have kind of stayed with him from 2016, they’re excited he’s running again,” said Taylor Blair, president of Iowa State University College Democrats. “I would say most people who were big fans of his in 2016 say, ‘oh, we still like him, but we think his time has passed.’ They like to see him around but are not jumping on board right now.”

White male candidates face skepticism on college campuses.

The early national polls show Joe Biden and Sanders on top, and Beto O’Rourke is generating plenty of interest after launching his presidential campaign last week.

But on college campuses, there is significant appetite for supporting women candidates.

“The constant refrain I hear is, ‘I’m not going to be caucusing for a man,’” said Blair of Iowa State University. “From where I’m looking now, it would take a lot for me to caucus for a man.”

Blair said that there were “a lot of leftover feelings from 2016,” after Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Now there are six Democratic women to choose from: Harris, Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and self-help author Marianne Williamson.

“It’s time,” Blair said. “We’re done waiting for it to happen someday in the future. … I think a lot of people feel they’re going to choose one of them.”

One attendee at a Harris event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., who identified herself as Justine Stephens, 20, a student at a technical college in the area, said she is keeping an “open mind” as she considers Sanders, Warren and Harris.

“I would like to hear from a woman,” she added.

There is widespread interest in learning more about Harris.

While the list of candidates cracking the “top tier” varied from school to school, young people based in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina consistently included Harris.

Tiffany Sanchez, a 35-year-old program coordinator for a leadership initiative at the College of Charleston, said some of her students “adore” the California senator.

“Having an African-American female in the presidency would be game-changing,” she said, even as she stressed her students ultimately want the best candidate, regardless of background. “Take on the patriarchy.”

Michael Parsons, the executive director of Dartmouth Democrats, said there is resistance to “old white guys” on campus. He said he hoped Harris would visit campus this spring.

“People see her as new and refreshing,” he said. “I’ve had multiple people tell me, like, ‘I’m not voting for a guy in this primary,’ and she has really impressed a lot of people.”

Asked to name the candidates generating the most discussion on campus, Blair of Iowa State responded, “definitely Kamala,” before mentioning South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who recently visited the area, and Sanders.

All of these student leaders stressed that young people on their campuses are generally keeping their options open, and hope to spend much more time with these candidates in person before making commitments.

Harris wasn’t top of mind for everyone: Lindy Hamilton, co-president of College Democrats at University of New Hampshire who recently received an encouraging voicemail from Booker, pointed to Booker and Warren as the most talked-about candidates. And Solomon in Nevada named Sanders and O’Rourke before also mentioning Harris.

Two issues are driving the debate: climate change and student debt.

In a field where many of the candidates share similar positions on issues like health care, marriage equality and abortion rights, students are looking at two other issues to differentiate between contenders: climate change and student debt.

That has helped Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who barely registers in the polls, make an impact in person—combating climate change is the animating principle of his campaign.

“He went around to every single person and treated our opinions like ‘real people’ opinions,” said Parsons, describing Inslee’s visit to Dartmouth. “One of the biggest ones, obviously, is climate change. Our generation is going to really look for mobilization around climate change, it can no longer be a filler line in a stump speech and it can’t be too far down on the agenda, because it’s very real for our generation.”

Perhaps no subject hits closer to home for young people than college affordability. Several of the presidential candidates have advocated for a range of free or debt-free tuition proposals.

A number of the candidates also talk up community college access on the trail. The Harris and Booker campaigns have been in touch with students at Des Moines Area Community College, and many candidates have been in contact with various universities in the state.

For example, the Booker campaign said it has started recruiting volunteers from the following Iowa schools: Drake University, Simpson College, Roosevelt High School and Johnston High School. He’s not the only one engaging the youngest future voters: Gillibrand addressed a gathering of middle school and high school students in Texas recently.

And in South Carolina in particular, historically black colleges and universities have been a priority for Booker, Harris and Warren, among others.

“Our young people are activated, and I join them in their leadership, because what I see—and it so excites me—is that, they’re not waiting for people to figure it out for them,” Harris told a South Carolina radio station. “They are present. They are demanding that they be seen.”

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Katie Glueck is a senior national political correspondent at McClatchy D.C., where she covered the 2018 midterm contests and is now reporting on the 2020 presidential campaigns. Previously, she was a reporter at POLITICO, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections as well as the 2014 midterms. Her work has also appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Washingtonian magazine, Town & Country magazine and The Austin American-Statesman. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a native of Kansas City.