Can Beto O’Rourke Harness the Elusive Power of the College Student Vote?

Many have tried; few have succeeded. But the latest political phenom thinks he’ll be more effective at courting young voters.

Beto O'Rourke speaks to students and faculty at Lone Star College in Houston.
Beto O'Rourke speaks to students and faculty at Lone Star College in Houston. Beto O'Rourke/Facebook

With the Retama Auditorium filled to capacity, hundreds of students packed outside the entrance, hoping to get a glimpse of Beto O’Rourke as he swung through the University of Texas at San Antonio campus. Spontaneous “Be-to!” chants rang out as organizers waded through the crowd to register people to vote. Amid the sea of Beto signs, someone held up a sign reading “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.”

When O’Rourke showed up outside the auditorium to make a quick speech before heading in, the overflow crowd erupted with deafening cheers, and phones shot into the air to take video. He urged students to use Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook to tell their friends to vote.

“His target group is us,” Nigel Aung-Myint, a senior studying math and education, told the Observer. “The voter who feels unhappy and abused by the current administration.”  

Students pack into the lobby outside an auditorium at the University of Texas at San Antonio as Beto O’Rourke gives a brief speech.  Justin Miller

Indeed, O’Rourke comes off as the type of a candidate concocted in a laboratory by political consultants to harness the elusive electoral power of young people: He’s effortlessly cool, aggressively online, eschews partisanship and is fluent in social justice issues.

“Beto is definitely a different type of candidate. It’s something we haven’t seen since Obama,” said Tyler Smith, who heads the College Democrats chapter of Texas Southern University, a historically black public university in Houston where O’Rourke held a rally on Tuesday. The El Paso congressman’s stances on higher education and police brutality have fueled his support on campus, Smith said.

In Texas, young people are one of the key blocs of the electorate that the Democratic Party, and O’Rourke, need to turn out to be competitive — they’re far more diverse and far more liberal than the electorate at large.

There’s just one problem: They don’t show up to vote.

That young people don’t vote has long been a political truism in Texas and nationwide, requiring the attachment of an asterisk to every energetic candidate who garners enthusiasm with The Youth. From Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s to Howard Dean, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, Democratic politicians are perennially predicted to be the conjurers of a youth-led revolution — one that will wrest control of the country’s destiny from the stubbornly change-averse hands of the older generation.

It’s never quite transpired.

In 2016, just 27 percent of Texans age 18-24 turned out to vote, compared with 65 percent of those over age 65. A recent national poll found that only 28 percent of young adults say they’re “absolutely certain” to vote in the upcoming midterms; for senior citizens, the corresponding figure is 74 percent.

With an expansive weeklong tour through campuses around the state — from the flagship universities in Austin and College Station to community colleges in Dallas and Houston — O’Rourke is making a concerted effort to drive youth turnout. “There’s really nowhere to go but up,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

As O’Rourke tells it, his college tour is consistent with a campaign strategy that has flouted conventional wisdom at every turn: Consultants and pollsters generally advise candidates not to waste time on college campuses in the home stretch of a campaign. “‘Time, money and resources are too precious. Do not spend them on people who are unlikely to vote,’” O’Rourke told the UTSA crowd, summing up the typical consultant advice. “Our contention is that if no one ever showed up for me … then I wouldn’t vote either.”

He talked about the burden of student debt that has gone unaddressed by politicians in Washington, asking “Why do we make it so hard for people to better themselves for themselves and for everyone else?” O’Rourke also called for investing in universal pre-K, boosting vocational programs and raising teacher salaries.

As in most of his stump speeches, O’Rourke’s rhetoric in San Antonio was aspirational and often light on details. He calls for the government to take the lead on issues like climate change, economic inequality and immigration — a stark contrast to his opponent, whose campaign is animated by sowing fear of those who advocate for social progress.

O’Rourke voices support for forgiving student loan debt for people who bring their new skills to communities in need. At Austin Community College last week, he told the story of how the West Texas town of Fort Stockton paid the medical school tuition of a resident under the condition that he come back and serve the community for six years. In the U.S. House, he’s supported legislation that would make two years of community college tuition free for eligible students and would allow borrowers to refinance federal student loans at current lower rates.

There are myriad reasons why young people don’t vote at high rates. Many feel disillusioned with a political process that doesn’t engage with their needs; others believe that their vote won’t make a difference amid the state’s sea of old conservative voters. There’s also the matter of logistics: It’s notoriously — and by design — difficult to register voters in Texas. And college students often change addresses and may have to re-register in their school’s county, or drive back to their hometown to cast a ballot. On top of that, Texas’ highly restrictive voter ID law does not accept public university and college student IDs as a valid form of identification, though it does accept handgun licenses.

While Beto has cast his courting of college voters as a bold endeavor, it’s a matter of necessity for any serious Democratic politician. The question is whether he’ll be any more effective than past candidates. His campaign has built up organizing infrastructure through a network of “Students for Beto” chapters and has invested in paid student organizers to get out the campus vote.

“They did a really good job making sure to reach out to campuses that either didn’t have a College Democrat presence or had neglected organizing in the past,” including in the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas, Breton Hawkins, president of the Texas College Democrats and a student at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Observer. “He’s definitely bringing in new people who maybe were just excited about Beto and were like, ‘OK, maybe I need to get involved.’” Hawkins said he is constantly surprised by the number of people wearing Beto T-shirts to class in Austin — as well as by the large crowds O’Rourke has drawn on campuses around the state.

But will all that hype translate into a wave of college students showing up to the polls? Hawkins is keeping his expectations in check. “It may not be felt this year, but will be felt going forward,” he said. “This campaign will pay dividends over the next 10 years in terms of political infrastructure in the state.”

Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 10:55 am CST
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