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College Leaders Speak on 2016 Election Issues
04:10 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN’s “Newsroom” each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Carol Costello: Young adults do have big ideas, but believe they can figure out how to make them work

Bernie Sanders secured bigger share of youth backing in Iowa caucus than Obama did in 2008, she says

CNN  — 

Sister Ban, I will pray for you, for the children, for refugees of all faiths on Christmas Eve. And thank you for reminding me that God is everywhere, not just in the majestic St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but also in a shipping container in the middle of a war zone.

And before you say, “Young people don’t vote,’” take a look at some cold, hard facts. More than 53,000 voters between the ages of 17 and 29 participated in this year’s Iowa caucuses. According to Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), young voters made up 15% of total caucus-goers, a majority of who are responsible for handing Bernie Sanders a near win over Hillary Clinton.

And, make no mistake, these young adults “feel the Bern” in unprecedented numbers. According to, 84% caucused in Iowa with Sanders. That’s significantly more youth support than Barack Obama amassed in 2008 – when he garnered 57%.

“It’s about revolution in a way,” Joe Luther, student body president of Georgetown University, told me. “A revolution in changing the way politics works. What’s so appealing about Sanders with young people is that we’ve grown up with complete and total political gridlock dominated by a couple of big donors, super PACs, and, what he’s calling for is a very grassroots way to govern.”

Carol Costello

Luther is one of five student body presidents from across the country who talked with me about the presidential race. He and his peers are remarkably well-informed and are eager to vote.

“We’re at a very interesting point – particularly for my generation,” Abraham Axler told me. Axler is the student body president at the University of Virginia. “The number one thing that’s affecting college students is, ‘What kind of job am I going to get?’ and ‘Can I afford that job I want?’”

The economy is the top concern among college graduates, but other issues matter too – like college tuition and Wall Street’s influence on government. And, frankly, Bernie Sanders – a self-professed democratic socialist – covers them all.

“Personally I think what he’s proposing is not all that radical,” Luther told me. “What he is proposing is, in a sense, what’s mainstream on other continents. Things like single-payer healthcare, tuition-free colleges – even things as basic as family leave.”

If you responded to Luther’s quote with, “Yeah, how in the hell do we pay for that?” or, “Hey, kid, not everything in life is free,” you just don’t get it.

“That is a pretty superficial assessment of the situation,” Axler said. “I think if you got into some of these college seminar rooms you’d see there is actually a lot of disagreement about fundamental issues and fundamental ideals. That is really the fun of college, and unfortunately, the things that become well-known are the things that become sensational, and often, the things that become sensational are the most idealistic or the most impractical.”

In other words, young adults do have big, impractical ideas, but they believe they can figure out how to make their ideas work to make a better world. So when Hillary Clinton calls Sanders’ big ideas “pie in the sky,” it can be a turn-off.

So, you ask, why aren’t more young people flocking to Donald Trump? His supporters think he’s a revolutionary, too. Trump is a guy who says he can make big ideas work by using his business skills. And, he’s a reality TV star, the kind of person old people think young people respect. Tailor-made, right? Wrong.

David Tassonne is student body president at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He’s a registered Republican. “I’m still working on was what it means to be a Republican,” he told me. “I was born and raised…in a household that was Republican … but hearing what they say sometimes, it is difficult to rally behind them, [because] I consider myself fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

Other young adults put it more starkly.

“A lot of his comments [are] racist. And they don’t make me feel comfortable,” said Seth Ward, student body president at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Ward is African-American and identifies politically as independent.

“My plan after college, after law school, is I want to be a JAG officer for the Marine Corps. But I know for a fact that if Donald Trump were to be elected president there’s no way I’m going to the [service].”

Why not? I asked.

“I think we might end up overseas, on the ground, attacking different countries that, maybe, we don’t need to be attacking…when I see these rallies, and all the supporters…it terrifies me as to where this country might end up being if he ends up being President.”

Still, according to CIRCLE, Donald Trump drew 20% of young Republican caucus-goers.

Would he like more? You betcha. All of the candidates are clamoring for young adults to flock to their camps. Yet it’s Sanders, a 74-year old, seemingly grumpy white guy who is speaking their language, and no other candidate seems able to figure out how.

Andy Smith, a political science professor, and director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, has some insight to Sanders’ appeal among young voters.

“Talking to college kids or young adults in a way that is condescending and demeaning is not a good idea. Certainly Sanders is more direct with them. Telling them that they are the future. And laying it out that it is their responsibility to make changes.”

I laughed when I first heard about the National Institute for Civil Discourse – a nonpartisan research center born at the University of Arizona to literally civilize the level of conversation in American politics, media and culture.

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