Yet in a tough contest where Obama will need every vote he can get, it’s unlikely that one of his most loyal constituencies will be able to provide him with much of a boost.
One reason is the nature of the state’s college students. With numerous nationally recognized schools ranging from elite, small liberal arts colleges such as Haverford College to the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, not to mention enormous public universities such as Penn State, Pennsylvania is a net importer of students.
Many of those out-of-state students are registered to vote in their home states. Sean Coit, 20, a junior at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and the news editor of the school newspaper, The Hawk, is among them.
Although he follows politics closely and is interning with a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia, he will not be voting in the Pennsylvania primary since he is registered to vote in Virginia at his parents’ house.
“A lot [of students] are voting absentee at home,” said Coit of his fellow out-of-state students.
Pennsylvania’s election rules also act to suppress the college vote. The state has a closed primary, which means only registered Democrats can vote. Since college-age young people are disproportionately likely to be registered as independents, that will serve to limit the number of students who can vote.
Pennsylvania’s approach is distinct from Iowa and New Hampshire, two states where college students turned out in force in part because voters were permitted to register on Election Day and also because the two contests were open to independents.
While the Obama campaign has embarked on an effort to register students in Pennsylvania, a late start has limited its effectiveness.
According to Swarthmore College senior Anne Kolker, the Pennsylvania coordinator for Students for Barack Obama, her group began its campus registration drive in earnest only in late February. Efforts were further impeded by the fact that the registration deadline came shortly after many schools lost a week of classes to spring break.
According to Kolker, the Obama campaign netted “well over 5,000” new registrants. But that’s not nearly enough new voters to make an impact, says Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall poll.
“I don’t think that’s an impressively large number,” said Madonna. “There are more than 4 million Democrats in the state and let’s say the turnout is 50 percent — and that doesn’t strike me as improbable. Two million people vote and Obama registered [at most] 10,000. You can do the math. That’s not a huge percentage.”
On the St. Joe’s campus in Philadelphia, Coit said he saw a voter registration presence in the weeks before the deadline, but students were not being constantly reminded to register. “There was definitely some voter registration in the cafeteria,” said Coit. “I wouldn’t say it was huge but it was definitely going on.”
The Obama campaign acknowledges that an earlier start to its youth registration efforts in Pennsylvania might have helped. “In campaigns you always wish you had started earlier,” said Obama’s Pennsylvania spokesman Sean Smith.
Still, the campaign appears to have a superior campus organization to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's in Pennsylvania. While Students for Barack Obama claim chapters on over 70 Pennsylvania campuses, the Clinton campaign has only 35.
The Clinton campaign says it’s not giving up on the student vote. Emily Hawkins, Clinton’s national youth vote director, wrote in an e-mail that the campaign is, “Doing things lik holding ‘Hillary weeks,’ meeting with the editorial boards of [college] papers, having ‘why Hillary’ parties, flyering.”
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