Politics Counts: Swing States Could Hinge on College Towns

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In recent weeks President Barack Obama’s travel schedule has taken on the appearance of a high-school senior on a college tour – of swing states. He has visited Chapel Hill, N.C., Iowa City, Iowa and Boulder, Colo., talking about issues aimed at that particular constituency, like student loans. And on Saturday he plans rallies at Ohio State University and Virginia Commonwealth.

There’s a reason Mr. Obama seems particularly interested in rediscovering his mojo with the college set. The votes in those towns may be critical to him in a what’s shaping up to be a close campaign – much more important than they were four years ago. As he hops from quad to quad, however, he may find repeating his 2008 campus magic to be tougher.

The legend of the 2008 presidential campaign goes something like this. Candidate Barack Obama rode to victory with support from across America, but especially from a hyper-engaged “youth vote,” as kids on college campuses turned out in massive numbers.

There are a few assumptions in that version of the story. First, the college vote was especially motivated in 2008. Second, the college vote moved in different ways than the electorate as a whole. And on closer examination, there’s some mythology in those assumptions.

Patchwork Nation, our demographic/geographic breakdown of America’s counties, has a special category for communities that have larger college-age populations and that also tend to vote more Democratic as a whole, Campus and Careers. Those 76 counties don’t account for all university towns, but they hold some of the best-known big state universities – Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Penn. State – and serve as a reasonable proxy for the college-town vote. They are in dark green on the map below.

For the rest of this week's Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's Web site.