In Madison, College Students Say They’re Voting For Biden. Mostly For 1 Reason.

MADISON, Wis. — When President Joe Biden came to Madison Area Technical College last week, he was hoping to fire up students here about his new plans to cancel student loan debt for millions more Americans.

“I will never stop [fighting] to deliver student debt relief,” Biden vowed in remarks laying out his latest proposals. “By freeing millions of Americans from this crushing debt of student debt, it means they can finally get on with their lives instead of their lives being put on hold.”

But his speech had barely ended before students were racing out of the building for something more exciting: a solar eclipse. Dozens of teenagers and early-20-somethings gathered outside, swapping crumpled pairs of paper solar eclipse glasses with each other and staring into the sun. Nobody was talking about the president or student loans. In fact, none of these students had even gone to Biden’s event. It was invite-only.

“I think the student Senate got in?” wondered Matt, 19, a student from the nearby town of Verona. “That shit is stupid!” interrupted another student charging through, pointing at the sky and looking for a pair of glasses. That was the end of any student loan talk.

Biden picked this Madison school for his student loan speech because it checks two boxes for his presidential campaign: appealing to young voters and showing his face in Wisconsin, a swing state that will be pivotal to winning the election in November. Biden narrowly defeated former President Donald Trump here in 2020. Trump narrowly won it in 2016.

Six months before the election, both candidates are aggressively courting voters here. Beyond last week’s trip, Biden was in Milwaukee last month, fresh off his State of the Union address, pitching voters on what he’d offer in a second term. Meanwhile, the GOP chose Milwaukee as the site for its party’s nominating convention in July, and Trump stumped in Green Bay earlier this month. It was his first time in the state since 2022.

Biden’s latest visit here was also an attempt to show people who are six decades younger than him that he’s listening to their concerns. At 81, he’s faced months of scrutiny over his age and mental acuity. Trump has faced questions about his mental competency, too. But a March poll by The New York Times and Siena College showed voters more concerned about Biden’s age, even though Trump isn’t far behind at 77.

For college-aged voters in Madison, though, this didn’t seem like a dealbreaker.

“It does concern me, but it also doesn’t,” said Mack, 21, who is from Madison and planning to vote for Biden. “I wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, that’s the reason I’m not voting for him.’”

And even if they weren’t invited to his student loan event, at least some students were paying attention to what Biden is doing on this front.

His student debt relief plans “absolutely” resonate, said Yaakov, a 21-year-old from Minneapolis. “I got a scholarship, but if I didn’t I would be $180,000 in debt.”

Even though he doesn’t have loans, “My brother, my friends, a lot of people I know are drowning in debt right now,” he added. “I got insanely lucky. Thank god someone is taking on this issue.”

Biden talked about his student loan debt relief proposals at Madison Area Technical College on April 8. Hopefully some students were invited to attend the event.
Biden talked about his student loan debt relief proposals at Madison Area Technical College on April 8. Hopefully some students were invited to attend the event.


HuffPost spent a couple of days in Madison talking to college students about the presidential election. We asked more than two dozen of them the same two questions: Do you plan to vote in November, and if so, who would you vote for and why?

There was a clear theme to their responses. Most said yes, most said they planned to vote for Biden, and most said it was because they just don’t want Trump in the White House.

“I’m going to be voting for Joe Biden because Donald Trump has proven time and again that he’s not interested in continuing democracy,” said Dylan Goldman, a 19-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is from Florida. “While I think Joe Biden is too old to be president, I’ve been left with no other choice.”

“I don’t know if I can say it any better,” chimed in his friend Michael Howe, 20, of Brainerd, Minnesota. “I will also be voting for Biden. I’m not a fan of Biden’s age at this point, but Trump is not that much younger and it’s the lesser of two evils at this point.”

“While I think Joe Biden is too old to be president, I’ve been left with no other choice.”

– Dylan Goldman, a 19-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

College-aged voters tend to be “more of a wild card” in presidential elections, said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy.

They’re still trying to figure out how the process works, she said, plus trying to sort out their own political ideas from their parents’ ideas, and figure out which party they identify with, if any. They also face an information barrier, meaning if they start learning about a particular issue that is being hotly debated on a college campus — say, the Israel-Hamas war — that issue alone could be the deciding factor on whether they vote and who they vote for.

“Young people statistically are more likely to be Democrats, but they don’t have a track record of voting,” said Romero. “So things like Biden’s policy on Israel, for example, completely upend that.”

Young voters also tend to have low turnout. “But they are still formidable,” said Romero, who has written about how our electoral system has failed young voters. “Their sheer numbers mean they have the ability, when an election is really close, to potentially swing an election.”

The equation for these college students in Madison, in a community inhabited by relatively politically active and informed young adults, seemed to be that Trump is a greater concern than whatever problems they may have with Biden.

Students gave lots of reasons for their disdain of Trump. They also mostly requested only using their first names. One Latina student said she felt “very disrespected” by him. Her friend, who was white, said she considered herself an ally to minority groups and couldn’t vote for Trump because of his treatment of people of color. Neither cited specific things he’s said, but Trump has a long record of insulting various minority groups.

“I don’t like how he took us out of the Paris Agreement,” said Jocelyn, 19, of Evanston, Illinois, referring to the international treaty on climate change adopted in 2015. “Obama put us on it, so I think it’s important to stay with it. I don’t want that to get ruined.”

Molly, 18, of Lake Forest, Illinois, said Trump’s history of denigrating “women and people with disabilities and all that, it’s just not something I align myself with.”

Jewish students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather for an event to pray for the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas. Some students raised concerns with Biden's response to the Middle East war.
Jewish students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather for an event to pray for the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas. Some students raised concerns with Biden’s response to the Middle East war.

Jen Bendery

This all sounds like good news for Biden’s campaign, but students still shared concerns about his age and his handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

“I honestly never was interested in anything Biden said until he was, like, showing he was actually helping Israel with the war,” said Demi, 22, who is Jewish and from San Diego. “Now he’s stepped to the side, and I’ve stopped listening.”

Moments later, she said, “I hate to say it, but Trump has done more for the Jews.” She said she feels like Trump hasn’t wavered in his support for Israel, and that the bottom line is “the Jews want to feel safe.”

But when asked if that means she might vote for Trump, Demi replied, “I’m kind of just like, whatever my parents guide me to do. I don’t follow politics. I honestly don’t know the difference between a Democrat and a Republican.”

The fact that many of these students said they plan to vote for Biden not necessarily because of what he’s offering, but because he’s not the other guy, suggests the president has some work to do with selling them on his record. Recent national polls seem to show Biden underperforming with young voters compared to how he fared with them in 2020. They also seem to show Trump gaining support from the youth vote. There are reasons to be skeptical of these polls, but it’s still not a good sign for the Biden camp.

Romero said she sees a connection between what national polling is suggesting about young voters and what our small sampling found.

“The common denominator is that they weren’t enthusiastic about Biden,” she said. “I’m not surprised that many young people are translating their very strong reactions to Biden’s policies into potentially not voting for a Democrat, maybe even potentially voting for Trump. The only thing I’m cautioning is it’s still really early in the election.”

“The war is evolving. Policies are evolving,” added Romero. “Maybe the war stays constant, but Trump does something to change the equation.”

Donald Trump, pictured here visiting a Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, is not very popular among University of Wisconsin-Madison students.
Donald Trump, pictured here visiting a Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, is not very popular among University of Wisconsin-Madison students.

via Associated Press

Of the 26 students HuffPost interviewed at both college campuses, just one said she planned to vote for Trump. But this University of Wisconsin student didn’t know why.

“I’m sorry, I don’t really have an answer,” said Grace, 18, when asked what she liked about Trump. She requested only listing Wisconsin as where she’s from.

“I just don’t think Biden is fit to be president. I feel like he has mental issues,” she said. “I don’t think anyone should be president if that’s going on.”

Sitting nearby at a picnic table, three male students concurred that Trump was the worst possible option.

“I just think four years of Trump would be worse than four more years of Biden,” said Finn, 19, from Los Angeles. His friends laughed at how cynical he sounded.

“I know, it’s negative!” said Finn.

“It’s a negative election, though!” said Andrew, 20, of Milwaukee. “Who wanted to see this?”

If there was anything surprising about what these students had to say about the presidential election, it was their eagerness to be part of the conversation at all. Nobody declined to give an interview. Everybody had something slightly different to say. Their enthusiasm to share their ideas about what mattered to them was clear, even if it’s less clear if or how their concerns will translate at the ballot box.

Andrew, for one, spent several minutes offering his personal analysis of the Republican Party’s base of voters, what he sees as their disdain for Super PACs and then told an anecdote about how shocked he was to learn about a lobbyist group in a recent election advocating for a political candidate of a different party.

“It’s crazy! It’s just crazy, like, watching it all happen,” marveled the 20-year-old. “It’s a wild time in politics.”

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