The Biden campaign is desperate for digital access to students as campuses

  • Polling shows that young voters are energized about the 2020 elections and overwhelmingly support Biden.
  • But with many college campuses locked down due to COVID-19, and the Postal Service warning of delays in delivering mail-in ballots, getting them to vote is harder than ever.
  • Students have become a moving target for the presidential campaigns as they race for the digital tools to lure this young but often unreliable demographic in an unusual election year.
  • A student’s cellphone number is the most valuable piece of data in this fight for votes. NextGen America, a youth voting PAC, has developed texting protocols that walk people through registration and remind them to vote.
  • Biden’s youth vote director said the campaign is trying to figure out the ‘digital spaces’ students are congregating in and find a way to saturate them like it would physical gathering places.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In a normal election year, students would be flocking back to college campuses  — and presidential campaigns would be right on their heels.

But 2020 is far from a normal year. Every aspect of society has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, including the typical fall push that Democratic White House hopefuls rely on to find and motivate the young student voters who can make a big difference in swinging an election.

“There are going to be people who traditionally we do capture who are gonna slip through the cracks,” said Rupi Jain, the president of the College Democrats on the swing state battleground campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It’s a perfect storm of complications: the loss of vital in-person interactions like on-campus rallies, voter-registration sign-ups, constantly shifting mail-in ballot deadlines and a turbulent fall semester has also left students uncertain of where they’ll even be when Election Day arrives on November 3.

That’s meant Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and the organizers who support him have had to reimagine how they will engage an unreliable but predominantly left-leaning demographic using mostly digital means. 

“The No. 1 commodity in this election is a cell phone number,” said Heather Greven, a spokesperson for the youth voting PAC NextGen America, which has had to completely reimagine its campus outreach during the pandemic.

College Students in Iowa for Joe Biden

Students at Iowa Central Community College in Iowa await Joe Biden in January 2020.

Al Drago/Getty Images

College votes could be good news for Biden and Democrats

More than 15 million people have become eligible to vote since the last presidential election in 2016, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement. Those young voters prefer Biden over Trump by a 34-point margin, the university’s study found. 

For Biden’s campaign, the challenge is making sure it can find its supporters when they’re scattered around the country and away from their schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When you’re campus-organizing, you spend a lot of time hoping for random interactions,” Hannah Bristol, the Biden campaigns’ youth vote director, told Insider. 

But because of public health restrictions, the Democratic presidential campaign has shifted its thinking on how to reach college students. Plans are in place to have campus liaisons in ten battleground states this fall that will help Biden’s team to identify virtual gathering places at each school.

It still sounds like a learning process. The campaign was thinking through the digital spaces that students will congregate in, and how to flood those zones with campaign messaging, Bristol said. They were considering all tools at their disposal, from secure messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal to more unorthodox platforms like Slack or even Animal Crossing, a Nintendo Switch game where players can congregate on virtual “islands.”

The Biden campaign is also using text messaging to direct young voters to or the VoteJoe campaign mobile app to get them into their system and target them with frequent updates about voting.

Despite the intense push by the Democrats, some longtime digital campaigners cautioned that there would be no magical solution in 2020 to activate the youth vote.

“Everyone’s looking for that silver bullet that’s gonna magically get all young people to go vote but that’s not really how it works. It’s a more dynamic situation than that,” said Eric Wilson, a veteran GOP digital strategist and director of the Center for Campaign Innovation. “It’s putting in the work of doing really good campaign marketing on as many channels as you can cover where enough voters are spending their time.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about its own plans to reach college voters. 

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