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College Students Look to Leave Mark on Virginia Primaries

Students walk along VCU's campus
Voter turnout has surged at VCU since the 2014 midterm elections, where one analysis found just 16% of the study body voted. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore Matt Tessema knows his audience.

“It’s how you attract college students -- either free food or candy,” Tessema said as he spread his bait -- Twix bars and lollipops -- across his table at the VCU Student Commons on Tuesday. He was volunteering on behalf of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a group focusing on mobilizing young voters.

With a reporter sitting conspicuously by his side, Tessema didn’t get many bites. But data suggests that’s not representative of student interest.

College voter turnout has surged in recent years. Many students in Virginia who were teenagers when President Donald Trump was elected are getting their first chance to weigh in on who should take the White House, starting with Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Tessema described it as generational payback.

“I was getting kind of irritated with the older generations talking about Gen Z and how they don’t show up to the polls and how they can’t be civically engaged,” he said.

Almost half of VCU students voted in the 2018 midterms, compared to just 16 percent in 2014, according to data collected by Tufts University's National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, which matches student records to voter files. That’s almost 10 points higher than the already significant national trend.

As junior advertising student, Samra Giorgis put it, “If you’re not voting, what are you doing?”

Giorgis, who says she’s leaning toward Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), said politics have moved from taboo to a form of identity -- a trend that’s not unique to students.

“It’s just like, ‘Hi, what's your name? Who’d you vote for?,’” Giorgis said.

The new student engagement has attracted the notice of all of the major Democratic presidential contenders.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Massachusetts) team said they’re active on six campuses. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign said they’re currently focused on three schools, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s team hired several organizers, including one focused on Black students at VCU and Virginia State University.

Then there’s the current frontrunner.

“Bernie can't win Virginia without students turning out like they never have before,” said Bill Neidhardt, state director for the campaign.

Neidhardt says they’re targeting nine schools -- community colleges as well as universities -- with two paid staff and a fleet of over 75 student volunteers.

Exit polling from Nevada's caucuses showed young voters helped propel Sanders to victory there. In Virginia, a Monmouth University poll released earlier this month found he was the top pick for 35% of 18-49 year-olds, compared to 15% for Michael Bloomberg, his closest rival. 

There were a few Sanders volunteers -- and none from other campaigns -- in the room at a Tuesday night Democratic debate watch party at Virginia State University. But most of the 20 or so students said they’re still making up their mind.

Several in the all-white field of candidates have proposed record spending for historically black universities like VSU as well as programs to address student debt. But freshman Yania Campbell was one of several skeptics in the room.

“A lot of candidates are speaking to the black vote,” she said. “However, they’re not going out into black communities.”

“How are we going to act on this rather than just promising things?” she asked.

As a New Yorker, Campbell is especially critical of Bloomberg.

“He just wasn’t for my people,” she said of the former New York mayor. “I remember my uncle and my cousins being stopped for stop and frisk.”

Campbell was a teenager when Trump was elected. Some people at the watch party said they were targeted with racism by his supporters that day. Senior Erica Neal described the mood on the VSU campus then as dark and hopeless, a feeling that’s sometimes persisted.

“I don’t ever want for my people to feel like the person that is over them has no interest in them,” Neal said.

Neal, who helped organize the watch party, says it’s the community here that keeps her going. She recalled a recent dinner conversation with family members about hope -- whether it was delusional in the face of what she and others see as a hostile political environment for African Americans.

“If I wasn’t at an HBCU, I probably wouldn’t have hope,” she said. “Because I wouldn’t be surrounded by other people that look like me, that not only notice the issues that are happening in our community, but are actively making strides to make that change.”

When the debate is over, Neal addresses her fellow students. Next week might be spring break, she says, but please don’t forget to vote.

There are signs they’re already doing that. As of Wednesday, Virginia Department of Elections data showed more than 14,000 students have requested absentee ballots ahead of the Democratic presidential primary.

*Editors note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Matt Tessema as Tessem. It has been corrected.

Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM News with a focus on accountability journalism.