/The Rise of the Battleground Campus

The Rise of the Battleground Campus

In advance of Trump’s reelection effort, his son Don Jr. has embarked on a near-constant tour of swing state universities, often with his girlfriend and former Fox News host, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Since announcing her 2020 run, the selfie-fueled Elizabeth Warren has addressed a 3,000-person audience in an auditorium at ASU about “money-driven corruption in Washington” and student loan debt. During a recent call inquiring about the preponderance of candidates addressing students the University of Michigan, I was told the press office was too busy to talk, as the university was planning a visit from Hillary Clinton, who came the next day, to share her wisdom on how to beat (or perhaps just get more votes than) Trump.

Yet polls also show that these young voters are less likely to identify with political parties, which they view as feckless entities corrupted by big business and bureaucrats, than they are to ally with specific issues like health care or LGBTQ rights. This aversion to parties can make them less predictable than boomers who have voter files that are decades-long.

In addition to untold student debt, many young college students also bear resentment that no one kept the semi-automatics out of their high schools. They aren’t really mad, according to surveys, polls and chats with people who spend a lot of time with them, as much as they are ready to take charge.

Even if they resist being identified as party members, most college students vote for the Democrats, so it would seem that Trump’s eventual opponent would have an obvious advantage on the nation’s campuses. Voters of ages 18 to 29 supported Democrats by a 44-point margin in 2018, Baumann says. That was up from a 25-point margin in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But with a well-funded and heavily coordinated band of conservative groups long used to outspending Democrats, it’s not entirely clear who is the David and who is the Goliath. The Leadership Institute, a school for young conservatives founded by Morton Blackwell, has trained more than 200,000 Republican-leaning activists since its inception in 1979. Among its graduates are Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Mitch McConnell. Last fiscal year, the institute had nearly $20 million in net assets and worked with close to 2,000 groups, holding nearly 6,000 campus activities. A review of dozens of tax documents indicate that this past fiscal year alone, conservative foundations spent more than $100 million on the long-term venture of drawing college students to their side, with groups like Young America’s Foundation, which has $70 million in net assets, alone spending more than $19 million on educational endeavors.

NextGen America, the progressive, get-out-the-vote group founded by California billionaire turned 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is the most prominent advocacy outfit aimed at the young left. It spent $38 million in 2018 and is expected to spend at least that much in 2020 on voter participation efforts, mostly on large schools in swing states. That’s made NextGen a campus darling and has helped it to infuse its well-tested strategies into other less impressively funded progressive groups.

But together conservative groups are expected to far exceed that. Students for Trump, the political arm of Charlie Kirk’s conservative Turning Point U.S.A., has announced that it will be spending an estimated $15 million, and Young Americans for Liberty is planning on spending a projected $13 million on campuses recruiting, training and canvassing for 150 libertarian candidates that the organization plans to endorse in state legislative races around the country.

Sitting at one of ASU’s five Starbucks, wearing a blue T-shirt that read Be A Voter, Azza Abuseif, who is the Arizona coordinator for NextGen, told me her team at ASU—111 volunteers, two paid organizers and a regional coordinator who oversees operations—was focused on one thing: “Register, register, register.” In 2018, the group registered more than 20,000 young Arizonans and aims to register at least as many for 2020. Other groups in the state will focus on stoking the state’s Latino population, or white suburban women, or Native Americans and African Americans. As Abuseif said, “We are going to bring the youth vote.”

“We believe we can change this election by targeting students,” she told me.

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