While the China virus is raising havoc (thanks in large part to dim-witted governors and mayors with American businesses), it is producing one almost entirely unanticipated side effect that neither political party has apparently grasped.
Come November, due to the absence of students in massive numbers across the country, it is entirely possible that the 18-24-year-old vote will come up short between 1 and 1.5 million Democratic voters.
No political analyst that I am aware of, let alone the major campaigns, seem even remotely aware that the Democrat Titanic is going to hit a massive iceberg called the China Virus. And ironically enough, it is not because of the actual threat to the health of the students, but because of the crazed, hysterical responses of the governors, mostly in blue states. Nevertheless, even the states that are announcing reopening of major universities are about to learn that social distancing, reduced in-person classes, and an emphasis on remote learning—all combined with tuition’s and fees that have not dropped in the slightest—are a recipe for a lot fewer bodies on campus.
How many fewer? Harvard, for example, has announced it will be 100% online instruction for 2020-2021. Harvard will let up to 40% of students who paid for dorms stay there, but learning will not be in person. Princeton has announced the same policy. But the real-time bomb for Democrats are ticking in California, where the entire University of California and Cal State University systems have been 100% closed. Some students have seen this as an opportunity, of course.
Elsewhere, projections for full enrollment at the University of Washington and Washington State are holding up but Central and Eastern Washington are each down 10%. Enrollment drops are expected at the University of Wisconsin, and Western Michigan is down 25%. The University of Southern California, a private school and not a part of the UC system, said that only 25% of its students would be allowed on campus and permitted to live in housing. All others would do courses online, a 65% drop.
Perhaps surprisingly, this comes on top of declines in student enrollments nationally—down 1.7% this year, on top of a 1.8% drop from last year before the China virus. With the added complications of spreading out students, reducing in-class numbers and providing all the on-campus benefits students now expect (top-quality dining, gyms), some expect a number of colleges to go belly up before the virus is finished.
Richard Vedder, an economist specializing in higher education, predicted in April that between 500 to 1,000 colleges, most of them already in poor financial shape, could go out of business entirely. Another observer of colleges’ financial stability, Michael Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute think tank, told CNBC’s “Make It” program, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see enrollment in residential college programs drop by roughly 10% or so in the fall, and revenue to fall around 20% if students won’t be able to attend in-person in the fall.” A higher education trade group has predicted a 15 percent drop in enrollment nationwide.
As might be expected, universities are reluctant to share any enrollment data—especially if the numbers are shrinking. Falling enrollments become a self-fulfilling prophecy, like word that a popular bar is losing its mojo. The University of Florida, for example, refused to talk to me about their enrollment numbers. Many schools have vague and generic statements on their web page, with promises to reopen with large scale “measures” in place, mostly including a radical regime of testing, masks at all times, and foisting students off onto “online learning” as much as they can. As my former institution, the University of Dayton in Ohio warned on its site, “Some classes will be fully face-to-face, and some courses will involve a blend of online and face-to-face interaction. Some classes will be offered completely online due to class size or if faculty members cannot meet face-to-face with students. The modality will be determined by the nature of the course and program curriculum, room capacity, and faculty members’ ability to be present in the classroom. UD doesn’t provide any data, but it appears that the university expects the number of on-campus students to be down significantly.
So, what are the political implications of this? In a word, staggering.
In 2018, students turned out at a slightly higher rate than they had in 2016 when 40% turned out for the general election. The 18-24-year-old group turned out stronger in 2016 than in 2014 when only 19% showed up. The highest turnout increases in the 2016 election were in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. (It should be just a tad terrifying to Democrats that Donald Trump won Pennsylvania despite a higher student turnout!)
There are approximately 14.56 million college students in the United States. (There are 1.38 million in California alone, leaving the rest of the US with 13.18). In 2016, this translated into a turnout of about 4.72 million 18-24-year old’s nationally. They were split roughly 60% Democrat, 37% Republican, and 3% other. So how many will be on campus in 2020? In California, at Harvard and Princeton, not many.
It is critical to understand that prior to Barack Obama, this group was notorious for not voting, but the Obama machine focused heavy resources, including pulling in pop bands such as Dave Matthews and running an edgy social media campaign—really the first ever—to boost the turnout of the collegians. The campus is more than just a congregation of bodies. It is where the Democrat machine organizes, mobilizes, and energizes “da yuths” (to quote “My Cousin Vinny”) to vote. Don’t be fooled: much of the surge of youth voting in 2016 and 2018 was the result of dedicated on-campus activism that worked overwhelmingly to the benefit of the Democrats, who, again, hold a 60-37 on-campus edge. History suggests that if those students are not on campus—regardless of their political proclivities— their voter participation drops by around 10%.
The bad news for Democrats? A 10% reduction in that number by itself would be a difference of 467,000. This seems the very best the Democrats can hope for nationally: a loss of “only” a half-million voters. But many campuses, as noted, will be down 50% to 60% in on-campus students. A 30% decrease in students on campus would be a drop of 1.2 million and obviously any more than that would be an utter crater.
In 2018, college students turned out at a rate of 40%, contrasted with only 19% turnout in the 2014 midterm. At a 40% turnout rate of 14.56 million students of whom 60% are Democrats, the party could expect about 3.49 million student voters. But a campus decline of 10% would shave 314,000 off that; a campus reduction of students by 30% would be 942,000 voters and a half-full campus would project to be a reduction of on-campus Democrat voters of 1.5 million.
How critical is that? The difference in 2016 in the popular vote was 2.8 million, meaning just the shift in this cadre would have reduced Hillary Clinton’s margin by anywhere from 314,000 to 1.5 million. However, that is the optimistic scenario for the Democrats.
Given that the largest system in the country, the California system, has all its state schools totally shut down, at 100%, (1.3 million students by itself) even at a 60% decline in the UC system, the national Democrat numbers would be reduced by 468,000 . . . just from California alone after applying party preference. Remember we are talking about 1.38 million college students in California, with the vast majority in the UC/Cal State system. If the majority of the California students are shut down in the fall semester at a 100% rate, as many as 331,000 Democrat students won’t vote in the state.
Now, won’t many vote from home or vote absentee, or even walk in? Certainly, many will, however, given the organizing and mobilizing power of campus activists, not to mention the peer pressure that will be missing, it is more reasonable to assume that even with those voters, the 18-24-year-old turnout of 40% in 2016 may fall back closer to around 30% nationally, or somewhere in between their high of 2018 and their anemic 2014 levels. Students voting from home, without organizers whispering in their ear and handing them slate cards, are far less likely to vote down-ticket races, even if they do vote for president, senators, or governors.
The question remains, however: realistically, is the 10% model likely to hold? Probably not. Between fears of the virus itself, parents balking at paying for services and amenities that their kids won’t receive, the overall uncertainty, campuses may be lucky to “only” be down 30% in their student bodies by November. That alone is a disaster for the Democrats. And even at a 30% downturn, state and local races will be severely affected. For example, in 2018 (again, when “da yuth” turnout was at an all-time high), CA39 was decided by 8,000 votes. And that included ballot harvesting. CA21 was an even narrower margin for the Democrat, 900 votes. Where would those races have been if student voting were off by 30%? Or how about NM2, which encompasses Las Cruces and New Mexico State University, home to 11,000 students? The race was decided by 4,000 votes. Applying the 40% turnout and voter ID to a campus down 30%, the Democrat would lose nearly half that margin just from students. Arizona State University in Tempe has 53,000 students and, like the University of Dayton, says as little as possible about how many students it really expects on campus. Using a blizzard of health jargon, admonitions of “social distancing” and a mixture of online/remote learning and “in-person” classrooms, ASU dodges any real projection as to how many of its students will vote. The district was won in 2018 by 57,000, so a decline of 20-25,000 students on-campus would be significant.
But then the nightmare question comes: What if, instead of being down 10, 20, or 30% campuses find in September that they are only at half capacity, what then? What if, come November, the Democrat vote is upwards of 3 million short due to closed or minimized campuses? That will make for an interesting election day. Should that take place, for the most part the Democrats would have only their own governors to blame.
Larry Schweikart is the co-author with Michael Allen of A Patriot’s History of the United States (now in its 31st printing). He is the author of Reagan: the American President and is the founder of Wild World of History, and online history curriculum for high school students (www.wildworldofhistory.com)