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Role of young voters unclear in Massachusetts Senate contest

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>The UMASS Democrats student club poses for a picture in their office, which is shared with the UMASS Republicans.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    The UMASS Democrats student club poses for a picture in their office, which is shared with the UMASS Republicans. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>UMASS Republicans President David Kaufman (R) and Vice President Patrick Dunbar (L) hold a favorite poster of theirs in their office, a space which they share with the UMASS Democrats.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    UMASS Republicans President David Kaufman (R) and Vice President Patrick Dunbar (L) hold a favorite poster of theirs in their office, a space which they share with the UMASS Democrats. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Adam Pepi (L) a Junior from Northampton, and Grace Losso (R) a Senior from Marlborough, discuss their thoughts on the 2012 elections and the level of interest on campus at UMASS Wednesday.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Adam Pepi (L) a Junior from Northampton, and Grace Losso (R) a Senior from Marlborough, discuss their thoughts on the 2012 elections and the level of interest on campus at UMASS Wednesday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>University of Massachusetts junior Patrick Flynn of Chicopee says he has no time to pay attention to the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts because he commutes to school.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    University of Massachusetts junior Patrick Flynn of Chicopee says he has no time to pay attention to the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts because he commutes to school. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Mtali Banda, a Junior from Brockton, discusses his thoughts on the 2012 elections and the level of interest on campus at UMASS Wednesday.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Mtali Banda, a Junior from Brockton, discusses his thoughts on the 2012 elections and the level of interest on campus at UMASS Wednesday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>The UMASS Democrats student club poses for a picture in their office, which is shared with the UMASS Republicans.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>UMASS Republicans President David Kaufman (R) and Vice President Patrick Dunbar (L) hold a favorite poster of theirs in their office, a space which they share with the UMASS Democrats.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Adam Pepi (L) a Junior from Northampton, and Grace Losso (R) a Senior from Marlborough, discuss their thoughts on the 2012 elections and the level of interest on campus at UMASS Wednesday.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>University of Massachusetts junior Patrick Flynn of Chicopee says he has no time to pay attention to the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts because he commutes to school.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Mtali Banda, a Junior from Brockton, discusses his thoughts on the 2012 elections and the level of interest on campus at UMASS Wednesday.

His impression: “It was horrific.”

Banda, who lives in Brockton, did not watch the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., a week later. School had started by then and he was busy.

As for the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race, Banda said he is supporting Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, in her challenge to incumbent Republican Scott Brown this November. But he acknowledged he didn’t know too much about the Harvard Law School professor and consumer advocate.

“She has created a lot of buzz,” Banda said, describing what he knew of Warren in an interview last week outside the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass.

Nearby, his friends considered the question of the Senate race.

“The only thing I’ve seen is in the Campus Center where people are handing out fliers or pamphlets,” said Patrick Flynn, a junior from Chicopee. “I haven’t gotten to analyze it.”

“I haven’t been following it,” added Holyoke resident and UMass senior Anis Ani.

That attitude is typical of many students on campus, Banda said.

“I feel like this election a lot of young people are jaded with everything that is going on,” he said. “I feel like the cool thing is to be apolitical even if people don’t know what they are being apolitical against.”

Uncertain role

The role young voters will play in the fiercely contested Senate race in this state is unclear, according to political observers.

“My question is, are students going to vote?” asked Ray LaRaja, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst. “Will they get absentee ballots? Will they register to vote?

“This is going to be a close election,” LaRaja continued. “Do students matter? In a close election they do.”

Timothy Vercellotti, associate professor of political science at Western New England University in Springfield and director of the school’s polling institute, questioned the level of political enthusiasm on college campuses this fall.

“I am not getting the same vibe I got in 2008,” he said. He noted the widespread enthusiasm Obama’s candidacy created on college campuses then.

“There seems to be equal part worry about the future and resignation that no one will fix it,” Vercellotti said of the current campaign. Students at Western New England University, he added, appear to be paying less attention to the Senate race.

Polls show Brown and Warren running neck and neck among 18-to-29-year-olds. A WBUR poll released last week shows Brown with a favorability rating of 38 percent among that age group, and Warren with a 36 percent favorability mark. Large numbers of young voters have not made up their minds about the candidates, the poll found, with 29 percent saying they were undecided about Brown and 21 percent undecided about Warren.

A poll by Public Policy Polling produced similar findings, with Brown and Warren each receiving a favorability rating of 53 percent among 18-to-29-year-old voters.

A Boston Herald poll gave Warren a 54 percent to 40 percent lead among voters under the age of 35. Overall, the poll found, Brown was leading by 4 percentage points.

Democrats have won the youth vote by wide margins in recent elections, said UMass Poll Director Brian Schaffner. In 2008, 78 percent of 18-to-29-year-old voters supported Obama, and in 2010, 58 percent supported Gov. Deval Patrick in his re-election victory over Charles Baker, Schaffner reported.

“One of the interesting below-the-radar stories is why the young demographic isn’t as enthusiastically Democratic as it was four years ago,” he said.

Schaffner said one reason Brown is perhaps faring better among young voters than his GOP counterparts — 62 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Massachusetts voters in the WBUR poll rated Mitt Romney unfavorably — is his moderate social positions. Brown is pro-choice and has said that he does not support proposals for a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

“That does him well with the young age group,” Schaffner said. “If you are a younger voter he is a lot more palatable.”

Student issues

Both candidates have made efforts to tailor their messages to young voters, raising issues like the rising cost of college and growing student debt.

“Any chance they will be paying lower interest rates or gain more favorable terms on student loans, they’re paying attention to that,” LaRaja said.

Brown and Warren engaged in an early campaign spat in the spring when interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans were due to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent unless there was congressional action.

Ultimately, an increase was avoided after Republicans and Democrats agreed to pay for the freeze on interest rates by lowering tax deductions on pension obligations paid by corporations. Brown voted for the bill, and Warren voiced her support for the measure.

The pair have continued to joust over who has students’ interests most at heart.

“When it comes to the high costs of college, Professor Warren is part of the problem, not the solution. It’s bloated salaries like hers that are driving up tuition rates,” Brown spokeswoman Alleigh Marre wrote in an email to the Gazette last week. “Her outrageous compensation package from Harvard University includes a salary around $350,000 a year and a sweetheart zero-interest loan valued as much as $50,000. It’s not right that students and their families are paying more so that she can pay nothing.”

In 2009, Warren earned $347,000 from Harvard, according to her tax returns. The Boston Herald reported in April that in 1996 Warren received a 20-year low-interest loan from Harvard of between $15,000 and $50,000.

Warren spokeswoman Alethea Harney said the candidate is focused on making college affordable.

“Scott Brown would rather attack Elizabeth than defend his votes to cut Pell Grants and allow interest rates to go up on student loans,” Harney said. “Elizabeth believes that young people who have worked hard and played by the rules shouldn’t be burdened by crushing debt, and she will fight to make sure all our kids have a real shot at success.”

Campus presence

Both campaigns have a presence on the UMass campus.

Mina Rae Beckman, president of the UMass Democrats, said her group is focused on registering students to vote, making phone calls and going door-to-door, both on campus and in the surrounding communities.

“People are excited,” Beckman said, noting that the group’s first meeting drew 35 students. About 20 students from UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke recently campaigned door-to-door in Easthampton for Warren.

She said her group has done limited organizing around the presidential race because Massachusetts is not a swing state. But student enthusiasm for Obama helps their efforts in the Senate race, Beckman said.

“President Obama running for re-election brings people in, but then they see how important the Senate race is as well,” she said.

Harney said the Warren campaign has 278 student volunteers in western Massachusetts and 78 college interns across the state. She declined to break those numbers down by campus, saying the campaign does not want the opposition to have that information.

“Young people across the commonwealth have been part of Elizabeth’s campaign from the beginning. Our campus intern teams — which represent students from UMass Amherst to Bridgewater State — have recruited hundreds of volunteers and helped register more than 1,700 students to vote,” Harney said.

David Kaufman, president of the UMass Republicans, said his group has seen a boost in numbers this fall. The group’s first meeting drew 21 students, Kaufman said. Last year, meetings typically drew about a half-dozen students, he said.

Like Beckman, Kaufman said the presidential race is helping to steer student volunteers to the Senate contest.

“You feel like you can make a difference in this campaign at the grassroots level,” he said.

A group of six Republicans from UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke went to Brown’s Springfield campaign office to call registered voters over the weekend, he said, and they plan to do more outreach in the coming weeks.

Marre, the Brown spokeswoman, said the senator’s campaign is working to reach college voters through the “Students for Brown Steering Committee,” a group of 22 students from campuses across the state.

Scant attention

Interviews with UMass students last week suggest that more work is needed to get them focused on the Senate race.

Adam Pepi, a junior from Northampton, said he would vote for Obama only because “I couldn’t deal with Romney as president.” He said he would prefer to vote for a third-party candidate and may back Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Pepi said he will likely support Warren in the Senate race. But he has doubts there as well.

“My father says her record doesn’t live up to the good things she has been saying,” Pepi said.

Flynn, the junior from Chicopee, said he has not had time to pay attention to the Senate race. “I commute,” he said.

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