A POTENTIAL OPENING
Even if the relatively sound financial footing of university graduates gives Obama an opening to court their votes, they are far from serene about the state of the national economy or their own personal situations. Romney and his allies are confident that their message accusing Obama of botching the country’s economic recovery will resonate among this group as well as it does among others.
Men and women who have completed college face a dilemma, according to Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute. Yes, they’re faring better in the current economy than others. But they still might lag behind another key comparison point: themselves.
According to Mishel’s data, college graduates have lost income during the past decade. From 2000 to 2011, for instance, median weekly earnings fell by 1.2 percent among people who earned a college degree. From 2007 to 2011 alone, it dropped 1.1 percent. “I don’t think they’re necessarily rebounding any better, from what I see,” he said. “What’s happened over the last 10 years—wages for college graduates and those with high-school degrees—neither groups has seen any improvement in their wages and benefits.”
Their personal finances could also have been hit hard by the housing collapse, particularly in states such as Florida and Nevada where the market remains in crisis. “College graduates between the age of 30 and 50, probably most of their wealth is tied up in his or her house,” said Burtless, the Brookings economist. “So the decline of house prices hurt them.”
Some college-educated voters are quick to point out that they have yet to see signs of a strong recovery. Bucks County’s Art D’Angelo, who helps businesses plan their employee benefits, says that many of the companies he’s worked with have yet to restore benefits to their prerecession level, if they’re offering any at all. He says it’s the same situation with many of the people he talks with; most concur that the economic recovery is weak. “I talk to a lot of people who are struggling,” said D’Angelo, 64, who plans to vote for Romney. “Most people agree we need to do better.”
Another Bucks County Republican, Bob Welch, bemoans the region’s loss of wealth since the crisis. The financial adviser and head of the local chamber says that the real-estate market remains tepid at best and most people remain scared to invest because of the country’s uncertain economic future. “I’d say there’s been little improvement over the last four years here, very little,” said Welch, who added that the change the country needs is a change in the White House.
In a June poll by the Pew Research Center, confidence that the economy will improve during the next year dropped sharply among those who have graduated from college. Just 35 percent said they thought the economy would improve over the next year, a 15-point decline from the survey’s findings in March. It’s a sign that even for those whose jobs have remained relatively secure and whose finances have held up, views of the state of the overall economy remain shaky.
Republican are ready to pounce. That much was evident on a rainy Saturday morning in July as 100 people attended the opening of a Romney headquarters in Montgomery County’s Conshohocken. The event featured Toomey, whose successful courtship of voters in southeast Pennsylvania was critical to his 2010 Senate victory. Even if people are doing well, they understand that many of their fellow citizens are not, Toomey said in an interview with National Journal. “At the end of the day, everyone understands the economy isn’t nearly where it should be, and that’s because of President Obama’s failed policies.”
In effect, Romney is banking that the blunt-force argument about Obama’s responsibility for the economy’s disrepair—one he has stubbornly refused to deviate from regardless of his audience—doesn’t lose potency, even among those who may have the least to lose. For his part, Obama has to hope that a summer of mediocre-at-best economic news is not causing voters with a college degree to lose faith. His support among the group has softened since 2008 but remains relatively solid. A Pew Research Center poll in July found that about half of this group still planned to vote for the president. But if his numbers among that cohort drop much further, states such as Pennsylvania—a must-win for Obama—will become politically problematic. The president must hope that when college grads cast their vote, more than their tax returns will be on their minds.