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Which 2020 Candidates are Winning at College Marketing?

By collegemktgrp | January 22, 2020 | Political Agencies

Political campaigns have always taken an active interest in courting the college student vote. But recent elections have made them pay even closer attention.

College students are more engaged than ever before, and they’re showing up to vote in record numbers.

Voting statistics show that in the 2018 midterm elections, college students voted at double the rate of the 2014 midterm. And that’s just a midterm, which is historically nowhere near as important to college voters as a presidential election — like the one that’s coming up this November.

The expectation is that the excitement that caused the spike in the 2018 college voter turnout will be at work again in 2020.

In the past, not as much attention has been paid to the college vote. This is partly because of the challenges behind getting students to vote — the biggest being state laws that require students to establish residency in the home state of the university they attend.

But colleges have been making efforts to increase civic engagement on campus, encouraging voter registration drives and dispersing information about voting away from home.

Gen Z and Millennials, which make up the majority of the U.S. college student population, will make up the largest group of eligible voters in the 2020 elections.

In 2020, thanks to universities working to get out the vote and an overall increase in student engagement, we’re seeing political campaigns focus on college marketing like never before.

And some 2020 presidential candidates are making especially big bets on this key demographic being the group that grants them the keys to the White House come November.

What Issues Matter to College Voters?

A big part of a political campaign’s success at marketing to college students has to do with the candidate’s platform and stance on issues that are important to this group.

Some of the issues that are most important to today’s college voter include:

 

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Climate Action Michigan x One University Rally 12/5 The University of Michigan has ignored student and community voices for far too long when it comes to climate justice and equity in higher education. We stood together calling for divestment from fossil fuel industries and increased funding + resources for UofM Dearborn and UofM Flint. It’s all about priorities. While the Ann Arbor campus gets more and more resources + new buildings and funding for mundane purposes, students at Dearborn and Flint campuses don’t even have access to basic things like health services. We’re calling on University leadership to set a precedent of what a public institution should look like and lead with moral clarity and political courage.

A post shared by Roxie Richner (@roxierichner) on

Candidates and campaigns with plans to address these key issues are doing their best to make sure that college voters know where they stand.

But some are doing a better job than others.

Which Presidential Candidates are Winning at College Marketing?

Historically, you can expect to see more passion on college campuses for non-moderate candidates.

Visions for big change, especially related to issues like student debt and tuition costs, tend to be popular at universities across the country.

This probably explains why a more progressive-leaning candidate like Bernie Sanders was much more popular with college students than the relatively centrist Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It’s also why Sanders continues to be very popular with college students who are prepared to vote for him in the upcoming election if he secures the Democratic nomination. One of the reasons may be his progressive stance on canceling student debt.

 

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To hell with Wall Street. #cancelstudentdebt

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Currently, Sanders is by far the most popular 2020 candidate on college campuses — he’s 15 points ahead of his closest rival for the nomination, Elizabeth Warren, who is also an advocate for canceling student debt.

 

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We have a student loan crisis—and we can’t afford to wait for Congress to act. I’ve already proposed a student loan debt cancellation plan, and on day one of my presidency, I’ll use existing laws to start providing that debt cancellation immediately. When I was elected to the Senate, I used every opportunity and tool available to ease the burden of student debt. I fought to lower interest rates, refinance loans, and hold loan servicers and debt collectors accountable for breaking the law and hurting borrowers. I made sure Congress provided $700 million in a relief fund for borrowers who dedicated their lives to public service but missed technical requirements for loan forgiveness, and I fought to cancel loans for 80,000 students who were cheated by Corinthian Colleges. Understand this: The Department of Education has broad authority to end the student loan debt crisis. When I’m president, I plan to use that authority. I will also use all the tools available to me to address the racial disparities in higher education, crack down on for-profit institutions, and eliminate predatory lending. The future of our economy and a generation of student loan borrowers are at risk, and we must use every tool and opportunity we have to help them. We can’t let corruption in Washington hold back big, structural change. I’m committed to seeing this fight through—no matter what. Check out the link in my bio to see how we’ll do it.

A post shared by Elizabeth Warren (@elizabethwarren) on

On the Democratic side, Sanders and Warren are followed by Joe Biden, Andrew Yang, and Pete Buttigieg.

But with all college students, President Donald Trump has his own base he can count on. In a general poll, Bernie Sanders is still the most popular with college students, garnering 22.5% of their approval. Trump follows closely behind with 17.3%.

Of course, Sanders is sharing his ratings with all the other Democratic contenders, while Republican-leaning college voters have no other viable options beyond Trump.

The eventual nominee will hope to consolidate the support of all of the Democratic-leaning college voters, which could provide an advantage over Trump.

That’s why all of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls are doing what they can to get college students involved now, in primary and caucus season.

How Are Political Campaigns Marketing to College Students?

Certain candidates will likely be more popular with college student voters than others based on their personality and how their stances on relevant issues resonate with this demographic.

But with some strategic marketing, any campaign can reach this valuable voter group.

Here are the college marketing tactics that political campaigns are using to reach students:

1. Social Media Marketing

This is the number one way that both Democratic hopefuls and the incumbent President are reaching out to voters.

On social media, campaigns can use data-based targeting to show their ads to students of certain ages in specific locations to get the most bang for their buck.

Video is especially popular with these campaigns across all social media platforms, from Facebook to Instagram. Video gets more engagement, more shares, and more views.

Just check out this Joe Biden video running on Instagram:

 

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Why are you so obsessed with me, Mr. President?

A post shared by Joe Biden (@joebiden) on

Retargeting ads on social media is also an approach commonly used by campaigns. On Facebook, for example, a candidate can show ads specifically to people who’ve been to their website.

The person has expressed interested by visiting the site — a retargeting ad is a good way to hit a message home, whether it’s trying to get a donation or reinforce a candidate’s stance on a certain issue.

But social media isn’t just about ads. President Trump has made this clear with the power of his Twitter account. His 2020 competitors haven’t overlooked that fact, and have been building huge social media followings of their own.


Between organic posts that are highly shareable and strategically targeted ads, you can expect social media to be ground zero for political college marketing in 2020.

2. On-Campus Events & Marketing

In states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic presidential candidates are making stops at local colleges a priority. That’s because they need the support of students here to secure wins in first-in-the-nation primaries and caucuses.

From hosting rallies to appearing in Q&A’s and student forums, candidates are doing what they can to get college voters excited.

In addition to personal appearances from the candidates themselves, we’ll also see a lot of on-the-ground efforts in the form of guerrilla marketing, postering, and other signage and print materials.

3. Email Marketing

Targeted email marketing continues to be an important outreach tool for political candidates trying to speak to college voters, even in the age of social media.

Email is a direct link to an individual and can serve as a very effective follow-up with people who follow a social media account or have previously visited a candidate’s website.

Last summer, Mother Jones reported that underdog Tom Steyer is counting on email to help him gain momentum in the race. He has two massive lists he is using to reach out to voters. Combined, the lists have well over 8 million subscribers.

All the other candidates are using their email lists, especially to garner donations. Candidates from Beto O’Rourke (who is no longer running) to Bernie Sanders have used their email lists to raise millions of dollars from their supporters.

In order to reach college voters in their inboxes, campaigns can use list segmentation to create groups of email subscribers based on information like age, location, education status, and much more.

4. Student & Celebrity Ambassadors

There’s little more powerful than a brand ambassador for a political candidate, especially with college students. That’s because college students are much more likely to trust the word of their peers than someone they don’t know.

Campaigns and their supporters are forming on-campus groups to help get the word out about their candidates, hosting booths at events, handing out fliers between classes, and sharing content with fellow students on social media.

We also are seeing student advocates align themselves with the campaigns they believe can help their causes. Candidates are quick to share this support to attract more followers.

Take this Instagram video of Cameron Kasky, survivor of the Parkland school shooting, asking his peers to pitch in to help candidate Andrew Yang.

Young people also take the word of influencers that they admire seriously. For a candidate like Bernie Sanders, this can mean anyone from a fellow politician like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the supermodel Emily Ratajkowski.

5. Digital Tactics: SEO & SEM

When a college student searches for a candidate on Google, that candidate’s campaign wants to make sure their website comes up first.

Same goes for press. A big negative story in the news at the top of the search results doesn’t look good for a candidate.

By focusing on search engine optimization (SEO), campaigns are doing what they can to make that search results reflect them in a positive light.

Campaigns are also using search engine marketing (SEM) to show ads in Google and other search engines to people who search for both their candidate and their candidate’s competition.

This is also an effective way to spread the word on a candidate’s policy proposal. For example, if a college student searches something about the rising cost of tuition or how long it takes to pay off student debt, they might see an ad from Bernie Sanders touting his plan to cancel student debt and make college free for all.

The Year Ahead in Political College Marketing

Once the dust of the Democratic primaries has settled and the candidates have been chosen, we’ll be left with two campaigns vying for each and every college vote.

You can expect them to both be making their presence known on campus during welcome weekend, which comes just a few months before Election Day.

But how exactly will we see the 2020 presidential candidates reaching out to college students? Read our guide to the 6 ways that political campaigns can market to college students »


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