Belmont University campus Nashville, Tennessee US
An aerial drone view shows the Curb Event Center on the Belmont University campus on October 20, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is hosting the presidential debate at Belmont on Thursday. Image Credit: AFP

East Lansing, Mich.: The air still became crisper, and the leaves still changed from green to gold. But many college towns looked a lot different this fall, their campuses quiet as universities adopted online instruction to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

With that change came a new political wrinkle: Some House candidates, typically Democrats, can usually count on support from students living on college campuses in their districts - but many of those students are now living back home, tied to their computers for classes.

For Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a Democrat who beat an incumbent Republican in 2018 and flipped the 8th Congressional District blue for the first time in 20 years, the switch to largely virtual teaching means the potential loss of thousands of reliably Democratic voters at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

In a House district that was decided last time by 13,098 votes out of more than 340,000 ballots cast, the loss of any votes this year keeps Slotkin up at night. She can no longer pitch herself to a captive audience of students hanging out in dorms, because almost all of them are shut down. And hitting the tailgate parties during football games on Saturdays with campaign literature, handshakes and smiles? Forget about it. Michigan State’s delayed football season is just starting this Saturday, and only the families of football players will be allowed into the stadium.

“I’m having trouble figuring out how to factor it in,” Slotkin said. “In a normal year, you’re out talking to people, you’re at the doors and everybody’s telling you their feedback. When you have a normal field campaign, you have polling, which we still have, but we don’t have a model for this. Literally, I don’t have an algorithm to explain to me what missing 50,000 potential voters does to my race.”

Voting in hometowns

Not all of the 49,695 students enrolled at Michigan State would have registered to vote in East Lansing for this election, but about 6,000 of them were registered in August when the university announced that most classes would be taught online, Jennifer Shuster, the city clerk, said. Many of those students are changing their registration to vote in their hometowns, she said.

“The numbers are going to go down in certain precincts,” Shuster said. “I definitely think it could impact certain races.”

Only 2,300 students are now living in Michigan State’s dorms, which normally house 14,500. Other students are living off campus in East Lansing and taking classes remotely, but precise numbers are not known, a university spokeswoman said.

Slotkin doesn’t have a whole lot of room to spare. In 2018, she won handily in Ingham County, home to Michigan State and to thousands of state employees who work in nearby Lansing, the capital. But she lost in Livingston County, and in the suburban Detroit portion of the district in Oakland County. If her numbers fall in Ingham County, the race may swing back to a Republican this year.

Although young Americans typically vote at lower rates than the electorate does as a whole, the race in Michigan’s 8th District isn’t the only one where their absence could have an impact. David Wasserman, the House editor at the Cook Political Report, cited Illinois’ 13th Congressional District, where Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, a Democrat, is again challenging Rep. Rodney Davis, who narrowly beat her in 2018.

Big turnout

Democrats were hoping a big turnout would increase Londrigan’s chances in the rematch, especially with the college vote at the campuses of the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Illinois State University. But remote classes have left many students living away from campus, and the Cook Political Report has rated the race as leaning toward Davis’ reelection.

“The Democratic theory of that race was that all they needed to do was get the turnout up,” Wasserman said. “But there are a lot of moving parts to this student migration situation.”

Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Inside Elections newsletter, said the loss of students at the campuses of Oregon State University and the University of Oregon could be a factor in the race for Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, home to both schools.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat seeking an 18th term, is facing a well-funded Republican challenger, Alek Skarlatos, a former Oregon National Guard specialist who gained fame in 2015 when he helped foil a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris. Inside Elections still gives the edge to DeFazio, but the newsletter has shifted its rating of the race from “Solid Democratic” to “Likely Democratic.”

“In close races, everyone and everything matters,” Gonzales said. “And it’s hard to identify one single factor that makes the difference. But the lack of college students on campus should be a concern for some Democratic candidates.”

An already complicated election season has been even more challenging for groups trying to help college students vote, said Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, the nonprofit that focuses on empowering young voters.

“There are questions of where they should register and confusion about absentee voting,” DeWitt said. “States are sending out absentee ballot applications or ballots to students and they’re not getting forwarded. Young voters are new voters, and this is the first time navigating this for many of them.”

Strategic choice

Since college students can register to vote either at their campuses or in their hometowns, some face a strategic choice: Their votes might be more likely to make a difference in a battleground state or in a swing district.

To help young voters make the most of that decision, a group of high school students at Alpharetta High School in Georgia created a website, Students for 2020, that encourages college students from solidly Republican or Democratic states to register in the presidential swing states where they attend college. So far, 31,000 students have made the switch, said Edward Aguilar, 16, a co-founder of the group.

In Michigan, where President Donald Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes, students’ votes could make a difference. But Cristina Smith, a 19-year-old music major from Alma, Michigan, said she noticed fewer students on campus during voter registration drives at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, where there is a hybrid of online and in-person classes.

“We had tables out, but there aren’t as many people walking around campus, so we didn’t see as many people,” she said.

In the 8th District, Slotkin has devised a strategy to make up for the potential loss of Michigan State students’ votes in her race against Paul Junge, a lawyer, former television news anchor and former employee of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Trump administration.

Although he’s not considered a particularly well-known candidate in the swing district, Junge has raised just over $1 million for his campaign and has kicked in another $600,000 of his own money. But Slotkin has a huge cash advantage, having raised more than $8 million for the race.

The Slotkin campaign isn’t taking anything for granted. Using exit polls, it identified about 6,000 to 7,000 votes that Slotkin got from young people in 2018 and is looking at other areas where she might be able to make up for those votes.

Gonzales has switched his assessment of that race from “Likely Democratic” to “Solid Democratic,” but Slotkin is still holding her breath.

“If you’ve been in Michigan for more than a year of your life,” she said, “the minute you start taking something for granted is the minute you lose.”