The 2020 Presidential Election Could Come Down to College Students and That Could be Trouble for Trump

Daniel A. Cox August 4, 2019

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed an ambitious loan-forgiveness plan targeted at college students, the idea generated a lot of debate about the policy’s merit. Less remarked was that it was almost certainly a smart political move.

Soon after the announcement, Warren’s popularity on campuses spiked.

But a national survey of undergraduate students conducted by College Pulse and Chegg suggests that college students are poised to have a big influence on the 2020 election.

Female college students are prepared for a major election

Even more than a year out from the election, college students believe 2020 is shaping up to be the most consequential contest in their lifetime.

A majority of college students (59%) believe the 2020 election will be more important for the country than any other election in their lifetime. This view is particularly prominent among female students. Nearly two-thirds (66%) of female students compared to fewer than half (48%) of male students believe next year’s election is more important than past contests.

Democratic students are far more sensitive to the importance of the upcoming election than Republican students. 77% of Democratic college students believe that the 2020 election is more important for the country than previous presidential elections. Only 32% of Republican students agree.

There is also a sharp gender divide among students in how much influence they and their peers will have on the election. Female students are far more likely than male students to believe that undergraduates will have a major effect (55% versus 34%, respectively). Overall, nearly half (46%) of college students believe that students will have a major impact on the election.

Finally, female students are generally surrounded by people who are critical of the president. More than two-thirds (68%) of female students say that most of their close friends have a “very unfavorable” view of Trump while 47% of male students say the same.

College students are not completely tuned in to the election at this point, but the 2018 midterm election saw a spike in youth voting. And young female voters saw the largest increase. All signs suggest that the gender disparity in college voting is likely to rematerialize next year. Female students appear particularly dissatisfied with the Trump presidency and more committed to making the 2020 election a priority.

Democratic insecurity and opportunity

Despite Trump’s consistently low approval ratings, Republican college students are far more confident that their side will prevail in 2020 than Democratic students. Nearly three quarters (72%) of Republican students believe Trump is likely or almost certain to win the election next year. Only 38% of Democratic students are equally sure he will lose. More than four in ten (42%) Democratic students believe the race is a toss-up while one in five say Trump is currently the favorite.

Female students express far more uncertainty about the outcome than their male peers. Close to half (45%) of male students say that Trump is likely or almost certain to win compared to only about one-quarter (26%) of female students.

Although the Democratic nominating contest is still wide open ( Sanders is the top choice among college students) the majority of college students say the identity of the Democratic nominee will not affect their decision to vote. 71% of students say they are equally likely to vote regardless of who the Democratic Party nominates.

Ironically, Republican students are more likely than Democrats to say the identity of the Democratic nominee could swing their voting decision.

In follow-up interviews with conservative students who participated in the survey, the lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats was not translating to support for the president, Reise, a conservative student studying at Andrews University in Michigan says many of the Democratic candidates have moved too far to the left.

“Every Democratic debate is offering some new social program,” he said. “I can picture all the tax dollars being ripped from my paycheck. It’s pandering to all the art majors on campus who won’t be able to get a job.” Yet Reise, who identifies as Libertarian, said he would take another look at the Democrats if they dialed back their spending promises. Trump’s weakness among conservative students also raises a broader question about whether Trump is going to be able to squeeze all the votes he needs from his base.

Trump fatigue

The most obvious concern for the president with students is simply Trump is not terribly popular on college campuses. Only 20% of college students say they would vote for the president if the election were held today. Male college students are nearly three times as likely to support the president than female students (30% versus 12%). But even among students who are generally sympathetic, there is an evident fatigue.

“I don’t think there has been a single day since Trump announced his candidacy that I have not heard or said his name,” said Matt, a student at Texas A&M University, who also participated in a follow-up interview. “I’m sick of hearing about him.”

Although Matt supported the Libertarian candidate in 2016, he’s leaning toward the Democrats next year. “I’m a libertarian, but I would vote for Bernie Sanders if it meant getting Donald Trump out of office,” he said.

Trump’s uncanny ability to command attention and to dominate news cycles has long been considered a strength. As a real-estate developer, Trump successfully parlayed his attention-grabbing instincts into business opportunities. But as president, this same tendency to interject himself at every opportunity has made everything political. And many students want a break.

Elizabeth, a junior at East Carolina University, believes that Trump benefited from the near-constant media coverage he received in 2016 campaign.

“Trump won because of the constant coverage of him and his antics,” she says. “But there are a lot of people who have become tired of it.”

She says that many of her friends are motivated to vote because politics has now infiltrated every part of their lives. “We want to get politics back to where it was before Trump was president,” Elizabeth said.

College students could have a lot of sway in 2020

In a close election, every voting bloc is critical. In the 2016 election, a total of 2,736 votes separated Clinton and Trump in New Hampshire. The University of New Hampshire has a student body of over 13,000, has roughly the same number of business majors.

But more important than the size of the college student population is how they feel about the political environment and their potential to affect it.

Most students would prefer the Democratic candidate — regardless of who it is — over Trump, believe that the 2020 election is the most important in their lifetime, and believe in their power to affect the outcome. We may see the Democratic candidates planning a few more campus visits over the next year.

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