How Republican and Democratic Presidential Candidates Talk About Higher Education

Election 2016
Posted By Derek Johnson on February 16, 2016 at 3:15 pm
How Republican and Democratic Presidential Candidates Talk About Higher Education
Republican presidential candidate, Ben Carson, right, speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump and Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., look on during the CBS News Republican presidential debate at the Peace Center, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Viewers watching the dueling presidential debates may have noticed a difference in how the candidates talk about higher education. For the Democrats, problems like the cost of college, sky-high student debt, global competitiveness and Pell Grants are brought up frequently, both by the moderators and the candidates. On the Republican side – with some notable exceptions – they’re barely mentioned at all.

While Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (D) and former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) have made “tuition-free” and “debt-free” college proposals a centerpiece of their overall campaigns during the debates, the issue has not generated nearly as much discussion in a crowded Republican field.

Through nine Republican debates (not counting the undercard), candidates have used words like “college”, “higher education”, “student”, “tuition”, “Pell Grant” and “loan” just 45 times. By contrast, the candidates have mentioned “ISIS” 231 times, “Iran” 136 times and “immigration” 116 times.

Republicans rarely mention Higher Ed graph

Source: GoodCall


Meanwhile, through six debates the Democratic candidates have uttered these same words 164 times.

Democrats like to talk to higher education graph

Source: GoodCall


Disparity stems from a mix of factors

A combination of factors could be driving the disparity between the way the two parties emphasize higher education during the debates. To a certain extent, the candidates are limited by the questions they are asked. While the Democratic candidates have been pressed repeatedly on their plans for curbing students debt and expanding employment opportunities for college graduates, Republicans have rarely been posed a direct question about their higher education plans or priorities.

“I think sometimes the debate moderators are looking for conflict,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.  “On the Democratic side, bringing up their college proposals will generate conflict because they’re different, whereas on the Republican side, I doubt that candidates like Ben Carson or Donald Trump have substantive plans on these issues at all, and to the extent that they do, I don’t think it would make for an interesting conflict.”

The dramatic difference in the number of total candidates on each side may also play a part. Most of the debates have prominently featured just three candidates: Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D). O’Malley dropped out of the race after Iowa, leaving two candidates that strongly emphasize higher education in their overall pitch to voters.

There is significant more crowding in the Republican field, which started with 16 candidates and has often led to intense competition for speaking time amongst the candidates. Outside of the debates, many Republican candidates have released policy papers on issues like refinancing student debt, simplifying the financial aid process, reforming accreditation and a host of other issues.

However, these proposals are rarely mentioned or leveraged under the bright lights of the debate stage. David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina and political consultant for Republican candidates, said that many of the special interest groups that dominate education policy are natural constituencies of the Democratic Party. As a result, Republicans seeking to distinguish themselves and connect with conservative voters often feel that their speaking time is better spent on other issues, like the economy or foreign policy.

“The tone sets to the audience. You don’t deal with things abstractly. You deal with them in the context of what the audience wants to hear,” said Woodard, whose website lists as clients former Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), current Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC). “Education – when we give the list of major issues – is not a driving issue [for GOP voters]. The economy, of course, is.”

A tale of two voter bases

Indeed, age may play an important factor in both parties’ debate strategies. Sanders’ has openly courted young millennial voters, and their votes have helped propel his campaign to a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses and a crushing victory New Hampshire. More than any other candidate, Sanders’ frequently pivots back to higher education as a critical component of his core economic argument to voters. Tuition-free college is the second priority listed on his campaign website. Clinton has offered her own ambitious plan to eliminate college debt, but pleaded with voters during the most recent debate in Wisconsin to recognize that Sanders’ plans are unrealistic and have no chance of passing in a polarized political climate.

“The Democratic voting coalition is both more diverse and younger than the Republican one, and so issues relating to the cost of college might be more natural for Democrats to talk about because those are the voters they’re targeting and appeal to more,” said Kondik.

Meanwhile, just 12 percent of Republican primary voters in Iowa and 15 percent in New Hampshire were 29 and younger according to exit polls. More than two-thirds of voters in both states were over the age of 45. That dynamic isn’t likely to change as candidates start looking to South Carolina. Woodard is currently working on a poll of South Carolina GOP primary voters, and estimated that nearly half the respondents they’ve heard from so far are over the age of 60.

“It’s indicative that for the GOP vote, especially in South Carolina, college is going back quite a ways for [these voters],” said Woodard.

Kondik theorized that a generational and ideological shift among older voters may also influence how much the parties talk about education issues.

“Republicans are older now than they were even ten years ago. For example, Al Gore won 65 or older voters. [Those voters] grew up during the New Deal, it was a Democratic group. Baby Boomers are more Republican-leaning, and they’re the ones who are 65 and older now,” said Kondik.

For more political coverage, see our special Election 2016 section.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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