Academic Voters Could Push Obama to Victory in Key Swing States

Although the group is solidly Democratic, McCain isn't giving up on them without a fight.

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Twenty-year-old Doug Massengill grew up poor, raised by grandparents in a rural enclave in North Carolina, a state that hasn't picked a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter first ran in 1976. Today, the North Caro-lina State University junior is pounding the pavement for Barack Obama, defying familial Republican roots and persuading peers to register to vote and give Barack Obama the nod. "He really represents the promise of the younger generation," Massengill says. This southern state is crowded with almost a half-million college and university students, and Massengill is convinced that if he can lure them to the polls, "North Carolina is Barack Obama's to win."

On the same Raleigh campus, sophomore Peter Barnes, 19, hands out John McCain bumper stickers. Barnes casts the contest as one between a conservative who works across the aisle, is strong on national defense, and has "served in the Senate longer than I've been alive, versus a first-term senator from Illinois."

Red state. Though the Tar Heel State is "light red," as one analyst put it, Barnes says he's got his work cut out for him because Obama's operation went through a "strong trial by fire" during the long, competitive string of primaries, including a victory here in May that the Democrat celebrated on N.C. State's campus. The well-oiled machine Barnes is up against isn't unique to this sprawling campus. Many observers think "academic voters," defined as college faculty and students, are poised to vote for Obama, and, where balloting is close, might tip the balance in his favor. Historically, though, college students, who now number almost 18 million, have not been reliable Dems. "I have seen them go from heavily Democratic in the '70s to substantially Republican in the '80s to mixed affiliation in the '90s to heavily Republican after 9/11, for a year or two, to strongly Democratic again," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says.

But he thinks Obama has college students locked up this time around. Sabato says he was "just stunned" last spring when he asked for a show of hands among the 500 freshmen and sophomores in his Introduction to American Politics class. On a campus Sabato calls "more conservative than most," 70 to 80 percent were for Obama, with only "handfuls" for Hillary Clinton and a "tiny number" for McCain. "It's totally over," Sabato says of the bid to win hearts and minds at the 4,314 colleges and universities dotting the United States. Not only did students turn out in big numbers for Obama in the primaries; they've also flocked to his rallies. Obama has attracted huge college crowds, notably as many as 22,000 at Pennsylvania State University in March. The McCain campaign, asked where the Republican was a big draw on campuses, names three Catholic schools, giving the largest turnout as 4,000 at Villanova University in Philadelphia in April when McCain dropped in on MSNBC's touring Hardball With Chris Matthews.

That's not to say McCain doesn't have campus support. At Drake University in Des Moines, political scientist Dennis Goldford watched Obama campaign and found he radiated "a certain cool, a certain charisma" that is attractive to college students. Still, Goldford does not diminish McCain's appeal, saying, "He will activate Republican students the way another Republican would, talking about the military, character, and traditional values." McCain's campaign boasts organizations on more than 100 campuses, and Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee, is sending 60 paid organizers to colleges and universities. "It's going to be a tough fight," Eilon, 24, says, but McCain "works best when he's the underdog."

Obama's camp says more than 700 chapters of Students for Obama sprang up in the primaries, and now there are chapters in every state. It is also working with the College Democrats of America but won't divulge how many paid organizers it will disperse. Whether college students cast a ballot November 4 remains to be seen, since only 55 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in 2004, compared with 72 percent of those 55 and older.