John Edwards and the Campus Vote

My alma mater’s newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, polled current student preferences in the presidential race. Here are the results:

Which of the current 2008 presidential candidates do you believe would make the best President of the United States?

Barack Obama: 37.5 percent
Hillary Clinton: 18.4 percent
John Edwards: 5.6 percent
Dennis Kucinich: 4.5 percent
Ron Paul: 3.1 percent
Mitt Romney: 2.7 percent
Bill Richardson: 2.6 percent
Joseph Biden: 2.4 percent
Rudy Giuliani: 1.8 percent
John McCain: 1 percent

The question is oddly phrased, but let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that the vast majority of people will vote for the candidate they believe will be the "best president."  What surprises me here is that John Edwards‘ meager support among youth at large — 8.4 percent — actually surpasses his support at Brown. The university is staunchly liberal and has an engaged student body much more plugged into politics than the average voter of any age. If Edwards’ track record of putting forth bold and specific policy proposals could gain traction among any population, I might have guessed that Brown students would be listening.

But upon further reflection, it makes sense that Edwards trails so far behind Obama and Hillary at Brown. Identity politics hold powerful sway there, so many students are motivated by the historic opportunity to elect the nation’s first black or female president. And although Edwards is the most out-spokenly progressive candidate on the labor issues that have inflamed the campus in years past (during controversies over the labor practices of manufacturers of university-branded apparel, as well as contract negotiations for campus library and food service workers), the majority of students tune into those problems only when they’re in the local news. The excellent Brown Student Labor Alliance, while one of the most effective student groups on campus, had a very small regular membership during my time at the university.

Unions aren’t an American institution that most young people spend a lot of time thinking about, and Brown students, who come from mostly upper middle class and affluent families, are particularly removed from working class issues. Edwards’ populist appeal just isn’t as resonant with them as Obama’s hopeful talk of transcending difference and renewing American politics.

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