As the 2020 general election approaches, the role college voters might play is taking shape. Early polling indicates young voters are highly engaged and that college students strongly favor Democratic nominee Joe Biden, making them a potentially pivotal group.
Voters aged 18-29 turned out in the 2018 midterm elections at a higher rate than any time in the last 30 years, according to U.S. Census Data. Furthermore, over 70% of college students surveyed in a recent poll by College Pulse said they were definitely voting.
The majority of college students polled are planning to vote for Biden instead of President Donald Trump — but the trend seems to be driven by disdain for the president, not enthusiasm for Biden.
The same poll shows only 19% of students view Trump favorably, while 49% view Biden favorably. When asked who they would vote for, the student population overwhelmingly chose Biden, at a rate of 70% against a paltry 18% for Trump.
“I expect (Democratic voters) are treating this as a referendum against Trump and the policies that he has put in place,” said Jessica Feezell, an assistant professor of political science at University of New Mexico. “Specifically policies that hurt people of color, children of immigrants, LGBTQ populations — a lot of those demographics.”
The Daily Lobo asked for feedback on social media about the election, and many of the respondents said they were unenthusiastically casting their vote for Biden.
“This election I’m planning to vote Biden,” said one respondent who requested anonymity. “Consider me part of the ‘Biden, but this is bullshit 2020’ crowd.”
Most respondents echoed the sentiment.
“Biden. Yes, the other old white guy,” UNM senior Jordan Moats responded. “My priority right now is getting Trump out of office … We shouldn’t have to beg our leaders to believe in science, empathy and reason.”
Not all respondents, though, were interested in voting for Biden.
“Biden is a weak leader, period,” said UNM sophomore Son’iah Martinez-Silas, who is planning to vote for Trump. “He can barely express his thoughts and opinions.”
Recent polling data is reminiscent of the 2016 election. In August 2016, Hillary Clinton’s favorability was only 42%, but she led Trump in national polls by a 7.4 point margin.
Many respondents saw a similarity between the two elections, with one calling Biden’s campaign “Hillary 2.0” and another saying it feels “like another 2016 election.”
In the Democratic primary, college students supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Weekly polling by College Pulse shows Sanders ended his campaign with a 71% favorability rating among college students, with Biden at 24%.
“I was really looking forward to casting my vote for Sanders,” UNM junior Ashley Varela said. “When he dropped out … I felt very disillusioned. I’ll be (voting) for Biden, but not because I believe in him. It’s the only way I think we can get through this pandemic and keep our democracy.”
Sanders’ national polling against Trump turned up mixed results. Vox reported in February that while the senator was polling well, his voter base was heavily youth-oriented, a notoriously unreliable group in terms of turnout — although, again, young voters appeared to be unusually mobilized in the last two years.
Some argue that Biden’s nomination will help the Democrats draw support away from Trump. Indeed, several prominent Republicans dissatisfied with Trump’s presidency have endorsed his campaign.
The College Pulse survey showed Biden pulling more support from Republican-leaning college voters than Trump is pulling from Democrat-leaning students.
The “lesser of two evils” sentiment many voters are feeling in the 2020 race has left some frustrated with the political system as a whole.
UNM alumnus Chris Murphy said he supported Trump in 2016 but isn’t planning to do the same this year because of “(Trump’s) views on racial issues, his negligence of the pandemic and his views on immigration.”
However, Murphy was less than enthusiastic with the Democratic option, saying that in his view, both parties work only to uphold their political platforms while ignoring their constituents’ feelings on the issues.
“I don’t have confidence in Joe Biden,” Murphy said, noting he felt pressured to vote for the former vice president. “I wish the political system wasn’t a bipartisan system, but rather a system for the betterment of all Americans.”
Feezell noted that this phenomenon is an inherent feature of the system, but still recommended that voters engage and “make (their) voice heard.”
“Voting in a two-party system is always a question of ‘How much do I have to misrepresent myself?’” Feezell said. “You have people who are upset about the system and perhaps feel disenfranchised and want to burn it all down, to whom I say, ‘It’s okay to misrepresent yourself a little bit.’”
As a state, New Mexico’s role in the election is also still coming into focus. There is some debate over whether the state could actually turn red in 2020, although polls are showing Biden with a sizable lead.
“Trump’s base is more galvanized and absolutely dominating with propaganda,” one of the respondents, who noted that they reside in a rural area, said. “It may just be that my district is particularly conservative … That said, there are zero Biden signs, stickers, nothing.”
It is possible Trump’s voter base has grown in New Mexico. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution and NPR showed that New Mexico experienced the largest increase in white voters without a college degree of any state with the potential to be competitive in 2020. This demographic tends to lean strongly toward Trump.
But Feezell doubts that trend would be enough to undercut the state’s Democratic tilt.
“New Mexico recently moved out of the swing state category … We’ve kind of got a royal flush,” Feezell said, referring to the fact that New Mexico’s governor and entire Congressional delegation are all Democrats. “I would be surprised if the Trump base expands enough (to offset) incoming voters mobilized against the Trump administration.”
College voters as a whole have tremendous potential to sway the 2020 election. Feezell said young voters need to turn out and vote, despite the frustration many are feeling with the choices being offered by the two major parties.
“The continual problem we have with young voters in the United States is that they don’t vote. For young people it is so important that they vote in this and every election, because then the representatives will respond,” Feezell said. “There are a lot of ways to participate. Absolutely protest, absolutely donate, but in this type of a governmental system you also have to vote.”
Voter registration is open until Oct. 6, and requests for absentee ballots are available on the Secretary of State’s website.
Liam DeBonis is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDeBonis
William Bowen is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @BowenWrites