Candidates head to campuses in search of elusive college voters

If North Carolina is a battleground state, then North Carolina colleges appear to be on the front line.

In the get-out-the-vote surge, campuses across the state have been a favorite candidate destination. President Barack Obama’s appearance at UNC-Chapel Hill on Wednesday came days after Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama campaigned at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Clinton will be at Pitt Community College in Winterville on Thursday, and Obama will be back Friday at Fayetteville State University.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who will return for two rallies in the state Thursday, has previously made stops at High Point University and UNC Wilmington.

All the attention toward younger voters comes as the race in North Carolina is virtually tied, according to the latest poll from Elon University, which showed Clinton ahead by less than one percentage point. The survey was conducted before last Friday’s news that the FBI was looking into new Clinton emails, and newer polls have shown Trump pulling ahead in the state.

Younger voters heavily favor Clinton, according to the Elon poll. Among those 18 to 25, Clinton leads at 57 percent compared to Trump’s 19 percent.

That might explain why the Clinton campaign held a “Student Day of Action” at six campuses across the state Wednesday, while singer James Taylor serenaded the Chapel Hill crowd with “Carolina in My Mind.”

Dog democracy

At East Carolina University, the event was “Donuts for Democracy.” At N.C. State, the draw was cute dogs. Outside the student union building, volunteers with therapy dogs lured passersby – clearly a more effective tactic than handing out fliers. Nearly every student stopped to pet a German shepherd and a three-legged Rottweiler. A shuttle bus circled by, offering to take students to the early voting site at NCSU’s McKimmon Center.

Alex Hornaday, a freshman from Apex, said of the dogs, “In terms of converting someone of a different party, I don’t know if this will directly affect it. But I do think – this would get me to the polls.”

Jake Mathura, a first-year student from Cary, posed for a selfie with two buddies and a fluffy Sheltie named Cary Grant. The three friends had already voted, but they stopped to pet the dogs anyway.

Mathura cast his first vote, for Clinton, and he viewed it as a preventive step. “I don’t necessarily agree with the views of the candidate I support, but I definitely don’t agree with the views of the candidate that I’m not supporting,” Mathura said.

Young voters are in some ways more expensive votes, if you think about the campaign resources required to get them, simply because their turnout levels tend to be lower, despite efforts by college campuses to encourage voter registration.

Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll

Rohan Prabhu, also a first-year student from Cary, said Clinton’s emphasis on debt-free college might move some students. “It’s enticing,” he said, “but then at some point, like, it might not be possible.”

The push on young voters may be an uphill battle, said Jason Husser, director of the Elon poll.

“Young voters are in some ways more expensive votes, if you think about the campaign resources required to get them,” Husser said, “simply because their turnout levels tend to be lower, despite efforts by college campuses to encourage voter registration.”

According to the U.S. Census, people 18-to-24 have voted at lower rates than all other age groups. The young voter rate was 50.9 percent in 1964 and had fallen to 38 percent by 2012.

The rallies at college campuses aren’t only about wooing younger voters. They also provide a convenient venue with good optics in big media markets, Husser said. The events have largely been held at public university campuses, where most of the students are registered to vote in North Carolina.

Wake the Vote

One group of college students has gotten an intensive experience in American politics. Since January, about two dozen students at Wake Forest University have participated in program called Wake the Vote that put them front and center for the primaries and conventions.

They were randomly assigned to work with campaigns regardless of their political beliefs. Along the way, the students met with luminaries such as former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, TV host Stephen Colbert and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Newt Gingrich and Chelsea Clinton tweeted at the group.

Eugenia Huang, a junior from Cary, attended both the Republican and Democratic conventions. During the primaries, she was a volunteer on the Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio campaigns.

“It was very eye-opening,” Huang said. “I really appreciated it a lot.”

She voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and now she’s working for the Clinton campaign. Though she has lived and breathed politics for the past year, she admits that many of her peers are either disillusioned or disengaged.

“It scares me because it makes me think that people aren’t realizing that these issues are going to affect them,” she said. “I think because of the animosity surrounding this campaign, a lot of people are kind of like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to vote.’”

Huang said her Facebook feed is almost exclusively about politics. But she’s concerned that while many people are quick to share their opinions, such superficial engagement may not translate into action at the polls.

“There’s a very strong narrative going around that people’s votes don’t matter,” she said, “which is ridiculous.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill