Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is trouncing his rivals among college students, but he actually trails Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) among their less wealthy and less educated peers.
Obama leads Clinton 43 percent to 23 percent among current college students — but Clinton leads Obama among youth who never enrolled in college, 38 percent to 31 percent.
Obama also leads Clinton among college graduates in the Institute of Politics at Harvard survey released Dec. 5, and he leads overall, 38-33, based on the survey of 18-24 year olds conducted online in November.
And Obama’s advantage on campus is especially pronounced in the early primary states that matter most. At Iowa State University a Nov. 26 poll found Obama trouncing Clinton 58-14 as the first choice among Democratic respondents.
“I think we expected that Barack Obama would be more popular among college students,” said Marissa Cumpton, 20, a junior at Iowa State who helped conduct the poll.
But she said she was surprised by Obama's wide margin over Clinton: “I didn’t expect there to be that big a difference between the first and second candidates.”
In the Nov. 28 mock primary held at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, Obama won handily with 151 votes to Clinton’s 80.
Since college students are more likely to vote than their peers who do not attend college, Obama may have quite a weapon at his disposal.
But, with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries being held while most colleges are on winter break, student turnout may be depressed.
Pollsters and political scientists are not sure why Obama appeals to more educated young people.
John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics, says that the disparity reflects a class divide. Just as Obama does better among students, he does better among young people from wealthier families. Young Democrats from lower-income families are more likely to favor Clinton, according to Della Volpe.
“Clinton is seen as more of a traditional lunch-pail Democrat,” said Della Volpe. “She is concerned with domestic issues.”
But on foreign policy, young Democrats seem to favor Obama. “Even Clinton’s voters agreed with [Obama’s] point of view on how to deal with rogue nations,” said Della Volpe. “They see no harm in talking to people. Young people really believe in this idea of a world community.”
Bill Woodman, a professor of sociology at Iowa State whose class ran the November poll, says students on his campus are more concerned with a candidate’s personal attributes than his or her policy stances: “They seem more interested in character, a fresh view of the future.
“It looks to me like students are ready for a change. Many students feel that Hillary Clinton is not a change. She may be a woman but she is not a fresh face.”
He added that supporting Obama has picked up a self-perpetuating cool factor on campus.
Obama operatives say they are reaching out to non-college-educated young people, trying to whittle away Clinton's lead among that group, which they attribute to her greater name recognition.
While experts like Della Volpe and Woodman would agree that familiarity with the Clinton brand is Hillary’s key advantage, the evidence that non-college youth will catch Obama fever is mixed.
On the one hand, the difference between college and non-college youth hasn’t changed much since IOP’s previous poll in March. (In fact, while Obama’s overall youth advantage was roughly the same in that poll, he actually did better among non-college students then than he does now.)
On the other hand, in Iowa, where Obama has campaigned heavily, he leads among all youth, not just college students. But hismargins are greater on campus.
A Dec. 1 Des Moines Register poll showed Obama beating Clinton 48 percent to 19 percent among likely caucus-goers under 35 years old.
And a Rock the Vote analysis of various polls from October and November found Obama beating Clinton among 18-29 year olds in Iowa, 38 percent to 32 percent.
Of course simple outreach matters too. The Clinton campaign says it is fighting hard for the student vote, pointing out that on Monday Bill Clinton visited three colleges in Iowa. But Cumpton says that Obama has been on her campus the most and that has definitely helped him there.
Also the Clinton campaign may have alienated some students last week when it criticized Obama for encouraging Iowa college students who grew up out of state to caucus.
“I think part of the reason why Obama is so popular is because he encourages young people to participate,” said Cumpton. “He’s very inclusive of young voters.”
Cory True, a junior at St. Anselm who helped organized the mock primary there in November, concurs that strong organizational outreach on campus is the secret to Obama’s success. “Obama is probably the best organized on campus. His student group is the best organized. They table in the dining halls. Surprisingly no other campaign is doing that. The fact that his campaign is reaching out to students is making a difference.”