In early March, America’s universities faced immense uncertainty. Campuses, collections of densely packed, socially active young people, were COVID-19 hotspots waiting to erupt. Almost all of them shut down, moving classes online and sending students home. But months later, colleges are still scrambling. Shortened semesters, hybrid models, online classes, and plans for another closure are all part of schools’ pandemic playbook. Many are considering the political implications of such moves. College campuses and the towns tend to be hubs of progressive politics that vote for Democrats by wide margins. With the election on the horizon, some wonder if the pandemic sending students home could have an effect on state or even national results.
While it is understandable to assume that a mass exodus of students would affect the election, this is largely not the case. Despite what may be said in the coming weeks and months, college students simply do not vote in large enough numbers in enough competitive areas to make the difference between a win and a loss in the vast majority of races.
The Raw Numbers
While college towns often give Democrats large margins, the campuses themselves are usually only a small part of this. What makes Washtenaw County (University of Michigan) or Monroe County (Indiana University) blue is not the students themselves, but the army of administrators, faculty, recent grads, support staff, and residents who choose to live there. For example, the University of Maryland has 30,000 students, but according to The New York Times, the precincts containing campus and the student-heavy areas around it, only cast 3,104 two-party votes in 2016. 2,590 went for Hillary Clinton and 414 went for Donald Trump. Similarly, the numbers for the University of Oklahoma (28,000 students) were 5,177 total votes (3,656 for Clinton and 1,521 for Trump).
Even scaling these numbers up does little to show that college students are a key constituency. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 12.1 million full time college students in the United States. Even if 15% voted at campus, and they split 70-30 Biden, he would net only 720,000 votes from this group. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than four times that. Given that college students are fairly evenly dispersed across states, it would take the complete and total evaporation of them from the electorate to make a dent in Biden’s numbers.
The reality is many students simply do not vote. Even the ones who do may not register at campus. Students may drive home to vote or vote by mail. It is also important to remember that even when schools are shut down, not every student goes home. Many students live off-campus and are legally tied to leases. Other students may also choose to stay in order to be with their peers instead of going home.
National and State Races
Given the small number of votes cast at colleges, future shutdowns would be unlikely to have a large impact on statewide contests. In swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, the largest universities are made up predominantly of in-state students. Furthermore, states are not usually decided by few enough votes for students to matter.
The most narrowly decided state in 2016 was New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton won it by about 2,700 votes. However, the total enrollment of all the colleges and universities in New Hampshire barely exceeds 40,000 students. Even if college students in New Hampshire turned out at a rate of 15%, and broke 70-30 for Democrats, Joe Biden would still only net 2,400 votes from them. Every other state in America was decided by at least 10,000 votes, so even if zero students voted, the impact on who wins and loses would be minimal at best.
The next level down from state level contests are congressional races. While it is more realistic to see a reduction in student votes hurting Democrats at the congressional level, this scenario is still unlikely to occur. Hillary Clinton only netted about 2,100 votes from each of the two large universities listed above. While many congressional races are decided by narrow margins, the number of raw votes separating candidates is often much larger than expected. Only nine congressional districts had a margin of 2,100 votes or less in 2018.
Additionally, most large universities are not located in competitive districts. In fact, of the 53 state flagship universities in the United States, only 7, using a very generous definition of competitiveness, are located in competitive districts. The only district where shutdowns could have a material impact would be in Oregon’s 4th district. It contains both The University of Oregon and Oregon State University (45,000 total students), and Hillary Clinton won it by about 500 votes. However, the incumbent, Peter DeFazio, typically runs well ahead of other Democrats here. If he’s performing closely in line with the presidential margin, he has bigger problems to worry about than college students voting.
Finally, the effects of online college need to be considered for state legislative races. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) lists house districts in most states as comprising somewhere between 35,000-65,000 people. At this size, it would be more possible for student heavy precincts to make an impact. It would also be more possible for small colleges and universities to have a political impact in districts of this size.
However, the large scale impact would still be minimal. Most large universities are located within safe state legislative districts. Small or medium sized ones may be located in competitive districts, but again, even a second shutdown would not eliminate all the student votes. The impact of online classes would therefore still be limited to very narrowly decided state legislative districts where a sizable portion of student voters would be unable to vote if classes moved online. This description fits very few districts, and it is unlikely that the control of the entire legislative chamber would be affected by such a situation.
Lastly, it is worthwhile to consider the practicality of online classes as a whole. Small colleges are more likely to be located within competitive state house and senate districts, but they are also the ones that can least afford to shut down a second time. Already in financial trouble before the pandemic, the move to online in the spring only exacerbated these problems. A second move to online learning in the fall would spell financial doom for many of these institutions. Even some larger universities have committed to staying on campus until Thanksgiving. While the virus will force some colleges back online as a matter of necessity, the logistical, financial, and educational barriers make it difficult to imagine higher education going through the same process as it did in March.
While the political participation of young people is an important topic, it should not be overestimated. Colleges and universities do not cast nearly the votes their student populations would indicate. If COVID-19 forces some universities online once again, pundits will no doubt point to this as evidence of Joe Biden and other Democrats being in danger of underperforming their polling. But this adjustment in expectations is largely unwarranted. The virus may bring unpredictable changes to politics in the fall, but students being sent home should not be cause for observers to disregard the totality of polls and data.