Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Unlike 2020, most college students are back on campus today. How does that change our election?

I was investigating a Wisconsin voting trend and what it might mean for November 8, and then I saw a cover story on Capital Times that asks whether college students will have a big effect on the 2022 elections in Wisconsin,....or not?

Given how tight things usually are in this state, the votes of college students are much more important here than in most states, as a national study notes.
The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University estimates Wisconsin is home to over 340,000 college students. Though they are just a sliver of the eligible voting population — comprising nearly 7% — they could be crucial in a state in which candidates have won by about 1 percentage point.

“Here in Wisconsin, where we have such close races, there's almost no group too small to have an impact,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.

The Tufts institute ranked Wisconsin as the No. 1 state where young voters could have an especially high likelihood of influencing election results in the governor's race and No. 5 in the senate race. That’s in part due to the state’s past close races and projected electoral competitiveness….

Voters across the nation cast ballots at historic rates in 2018 — the highest midterm turnout in four decades. The Census Bureau found turnout rates increased for nearly all age and racial groups, but the jump was especially high for young adults.

Among those 18 to 29 years old — many of them college students — voter turnout rose from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018, making it the largest percentage point increase for any age group. That number also exceeds youth turnout for a midterm election since the 1980s.
Tufts says that UW-Madison students continued to turn out strong in 2020, at a rate of 73%. But voter stats from the state of Wisconsin indicates that a sizable amount of UW-Madison students didn’t vote in Madison during a Fall 2020 semester that had many COVID restrictions on campus.

The dropoff in many campus-area wards in 2020 was notable compared to 2016, and many wards even had fewer voters than the midterm year of 2018.

By comparison, Wisconsinites overall cast 23% more votes in 2020 than 2018, and nearly 11% more than in 2016.

The Madison campus-area Assembly districts (76 and 77) barely had any more votes than they did in 2018, and we also saw a smaller version of this lower-than-statewide growth in turnout in several other Assembly districts with UW campuses on them. That includes the districts containing Oshkosh (District 54), Stevens Point (District 71), Eau Claire (District 91), La Crosse (District 95), and you could even include UW-Milwaukee (District 19) and Marquette (District 16) in this list.

Now consider that in Fall 2022, UW-Madison reported its largest enrollment ever, nearing 50,000 students. With that in mind, I would expect thousands more votes coming from UW-Madison student wards compared to what we saw in Fall 2020, and a lot of those votes are going to be Dem. This also makes me wonder if the people thinking Dem-held districts 54 and 71 might not be as winnable for Republicans as some pundits think, because GOPs benefitted from the lack of students on campus in those communities in 2020, and Trump still lost those districts by 9 and 7 points, respectively.

The lack of students in Eau Claire, La Crosse and Stevens Point also may have made 2020's 3rd Congressional race into a 2.6% race instead of a relatively comfortable win for Ron Kind. And maybe we shouldn't give up on Brad Pfaff beating Small-D Van Orden for that seat as a result, no matter how much the national folks are writing that race off.

Oddly, I don't see a major bump in turnout in suburbs or somewhere else that would have had a lot of at-home college students. Many districts that seemed to have the highest bump in turnout vs 2018 were places that were turning Trumpy, reflecting vote-casting that almost seems too good to be true.

Fall 2020 was a very weird time, especially on college campuses, and things have reverted back towards the pre-COVID normal today (although like most things in 2022, it's not the same). It's something both pollsters and casual people should be aware of, but don't seem to be.

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