This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Where’s Alexander? Part II: Chasing the dream

We asked journalist and civic educator Alexander Heffner to cover the college vote for us in the run-up to Election Day. This is the second in a series from his tour of campuses from Claremont to Mount Holyoke to the University of Nebraska. Read Part I: Princeton, Long Island University and Claremont in California.

There is no better introduction to my second report from the college grounds than the first question from last night’s second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. Kicking off the town hall, one Millennial asked:

Cover of Newsweek

Newsweek and The Daily Beast have dedicated a lot of coverage to the "worth" of a college education this year.

Q: Mr. President, Governor Romney, as a 20-year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?

In their answers, both candidates took a pro-student posture as advocates of Pell Grants, federal loans and other assistance for aspiring college graduates. President Obama said that he worked with Congress to increase the size and reach of grants for students seeking higher education. While officially aligned with a party whose budget would slash federal aid for students, Governor Romney focused instead on his support for a government-funded scholarship program implemented in Massachusetts.

I can contextualize the Hofstra student’s question with a tale of two other New York campuses. I recently visited one private and one public collegiate center in two generally working-class, politically-divided cities: Union College in Schenectady, New York, and upstate New York’s Binghamton University.

Alexander's college vote quest

During my Union College visit, I met with undergraduates who hail mostly from the Northeast. My trip followed a first debate that challenged young people’s perception of President Obama as charismatic, dynamic and synced with the mindset of the Millennial generation.

To those of the students who followed the 2008 campaign as high school seniors, it was a surprising deviation from the President’s apparent connectedness to the pulse of younger voters – both their dreams and anxieties. For those who did not recall the enthusiasm sweeping college campuses four years ago, the debate was a reprise of recent duels between presidential candidates, which ended up disengaging more than actually engaging younger onlookers.

Union College

Union College, Schenectady, NY

One student from an affluent suburb of New York said that the historic opportunity to elect the first African American president was more compelling than the prospect of his re-election bid. He says his well-educated former high school classmates, who are now scattered on campuses across the country, “don’t know anything” about what has happened since his election. They are not talking politics, they are not requesting absentee ballots and they are not remembering that they are registered.

From this perspective, it seems that Millennials in 2008 were interested in making a one-time statement: “We are a nation that can transcend a history of racial inequity and transform into a demonstrably tolerant state.” Naturally, we must ask if young people’s political passion, however keen then, was a fad.

Binghamton University, whose student population is primarily from New York, but also attracts students from out-of-state neighbors like battleground Pennsylvania, presented a more complicated picture. I spoke to a significantly larger audience and the students appeared politically attentive.

This feeling was confirmed by the professor of political science who invited me to campus. He said that he gauged more political activity on campus today than in 2008, which he partly attributed to a more deliberate voter registration drive. Thanks to funding from a campus dean’s office, he has launched a voter registration competition among the school’s residential colleges, the winner of which takes home funding for their student programming.

Binghamton University

State University of New York, Binghamton

Students may be more politically-engaged at Binghamton, but they are engaged in a very different manner than in 2008. Here are five of the most prevailing feelings echoed among the seventy or so students who attended.

(1) President Obama could walk on water in 2008. The wounds from Washington D.C.’s political treachery have hurt his image to the young voter.
(2) The intransigence of partisans is far more pronounced on television than on campus. Most students find inspiration to vote from their peers, families or some combination, but are not staunchly Democratic or Republican-leaning.
(3) When asked, only one student showed an Obama backpack sticker or any kind of political apparel. The President’s youth supporters are either not wearing politics on their sleeves as much as in 2008 or they are not the same tsunami of activists.
(4) Public policy directly impacts certain students more than others. One young man described himself as the product of an underprivileged single-parent household whose ability to attend college would be impaired without government aid.
(5) More than in 2008, young voters tend to believe that an individual party or candidate is not the answer, and they are not optimistic about the plausibility of reforming the infrastructure of American democracy, though they believe it is necessary. One student said Congress could possibly abolish the filibuster but suggested that other changes, like the reinstatement of campaign finance reform or the institution of term limits in Congress or a one-term presidency to avoid the perpetual campaign that eats up governing, are pie in the sky.

At both Union and Binghamton, I encouraged students to read A More Perfect Constitution, a twenty-first century manifesto for democratic reform by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Binghamton and Union gave me a similar sense of a disappointment with a broken system in D.C. that was clear during my visits to Princeton, Claremont and Long Island University. In 2008, the prospect of a post-racial future dominated young people’s psyche. Now forced to acknowledge the still deepening entrenchment of two-party gridlock, young people are ever more decidedly post-partisan in their outlook. And some are now post-Obama – not necessarily because they disagree with the notion that the president represents a path “Forward,” but because they realize his leadership alone cannot spur the lasting political change they believe the country demands. Their realization is that the next great youth mobilization, prompting true political recalibration, will have to be a post-Obama story.

Last night’s debate featured another question from a Millennial:

Q: In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?

The Washington Post

The Washington Post was just one media outlet to focus on the social media response to the mention of the Lily Ledbetter Act in the second debate.

In response, President Obama cited the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the first he signed into law after assuming power, which guarantees equal pay for equal work. Governor Romney’s reference in turn to “binders full of women” and his focus on flexible work schedules rather than on fair pay got a loudly unsupportive reaction from young women on social media. In next week’s edition of this series, I will focus centrally on the demographics of the youth vote, including the rise of young women as the most energized base of the Democratic Party.

Moreover, after trips to the University of California, Irvine and the University of Chicago, I will pay special attention to Hispanics, the most explosively growing and courted electoral variable this cycle, and African Americans, whose virtually universal support for President Obama led to a decisive advantage in a number of large metropolitan centers in 2008. While big cities and ethnic X factors will be the focal point, this third report will also examine the politics of first- and second-generation immigrant voters.

Alexander Heffner is a journalist and civic educator who has reported extensively on the youth vote and the political engagement of young voters. His writing has appeared in leading newspapers and magazines and his analysis has been featured on nationally broadcast media outlets. He founded and edited SCOOP08 and SCOOP44, the first-ever online national student newspapers covering the 2008 presidential campaign and the first year of the Obama presidency. He also directed a nonprofit initiative for which he designed and taught civic education and journalism in under-served New York City classrooms. Read more about Alexander and his work here.