The real winner of Tuesday’s presidential debate? Young voters.
Unlike the first presidential debate and the vice-presidential face-off, issues that impact young Americans played a much more prominent role last night.
The town hall debate, moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, gave Americans the chance to ask the candidates about their policies directly, including three young Americans who asked about immigration, equal pay for women, and job creation.
While some of the responses weren’t very clear, these questions did highlight the contrasts between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney on youth issues. And while these issues had a good chunk of the spotlight, some responses don’t paint a pretty picture for young Americans.
Here are a few of the clear toasts (and roasts) Obama and Romney made to young voters last night:
Jeremy Epstein, a junior at Adelphi University, asked Gov. Romney about his future job prospects as a college student who will graduate in 2014. Romney responded by saying he would seek to make college more affordable and ensure students like Epstein had jobs when they graduated.
“I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing,” said Romney, who also touted a merit scholarship he instituted as governor of Massachusetts that waives tuition at the state’s public colleges for students who achieve high scores on a standardized test.
But this commitment to Pell Grants has been missing on the campaign trail—in fact, he’s said that he believes federal aid is partly to blame for higher tuition costs.
Indeed, in September Romney appeared on Univision and tried to disassociate himself from the budget plan put forth by his running-mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which he’d previous supported. The Romney-Ryan budget would eliminate Pell Grants completely for 1 million students, shrink the eligibility pool, and freeze the maximum award for a decade. Millions of students would see about $1,500 less in Pell aid.
In April, when talking to students at Oberlin University in Ohio, Gov. Romney suggested that young people should “borrow money … from your parents” to attend college or start a business, just like his friend Jimmy, the founder of sandwich chain Jimmy Johns who borrowed $20,000 from his parents to start his business. But what Romney didn’t acknowledge is that most young Americans don’t have parents with thousands in disposable capitol to hand over to their kids.
But just two weeks ago at the first debate, Romney said he would not “cut grants that go to people going to college.” While Romney continued to provide vague details on how he’d ensure higher education is accessible and affordable, President Obama touted a list of what his administration has done to protect and expand Pell funding, restructure the student loan process to save students money, and keep interest rates low.
While Gov. Romney tried to back away from his previous statements in which he backed anti-immigration policies like Arizona’s mostly unconstitutional anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070, President Obama held his feet to the fire.
Romney said his previous endorsement of a “self-deportation” policy was a way to “let people make their own choice,” but in reality it implies that a Romney administration would make the lives of undocumented immigrants so harsh that they would be forced to “self-deport” back to their country of origin.
Watch the exchange here:
President Obama countered back to Romney:
I want to make sure we understand something. Governor Romney said he wasn’t referring to as Arizona a model for the nation. His top advisor is the one who designed the whole Arizona program, not just E-verify. It’s a bad policy and it won’t help us grow. Look, when we think about immigration, we have to understand, there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise, and they provide us energy and they provide us innovation, and they start companies like Intel and Google, and we want to encourage that. Now, we’ve got to make sure that we do it in a smart way, in a comprehensive way, and we make the legal system better. But when we make this into a divisive political issue and when we don’t have bipartisan support — I can deliver, governor, a whole bunch of Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform done.
Romney also said he’d advocate for creating a pathway to permanent residency (but not citizenship) for undocumented youth, many of whom were brought to the United States through no fault of their own, if they served in the military. But Romney conveniently left out any mention of those young, undocumented immigrants who are pursuing a college degree.
He said: “The kids should have a pathway to becoming a permanent resident of the United States and military service is one way they would would have that pathway.”
On the campaign trail, Romney’s said explicitly that earning a college degree was not an option for residency or citizenship, and he’s repeatedly promised to veto a federal DREAM Act:
When a young woman asked Gov. Romney how he would work to close the gender wage gap—women still earn 77 cents to the man’s dollar—the candidate avoided discussing any solutions to the issue and instead lied about how he used an affirmative action-style approach to diversify his cabinet as governor.
Watch Romney’s comments here:
He said: “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”
But as David Bernstein from The Boston Phoenix points out, Romney did not ask women groups for candidates. In fact, a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts formed MassGAP to highlight how senior leadership positions in state government lacked female representation. A damning UMass-Boston study found that “the percentage of senior-level appointed positions held by women actually declined throughout the Romney administration, from 30 percent prior to his taking office, to 29.7 percent in July 2004, to 27.6 percent near the end of his term in November 2006.”
President Obama’s response to the same question:
And this is one of the reasons why one of the first — the first bill I signed was something called the Lilly Ledbetter bill. And it was named after this amazing woman who had been doing the same job as a man for years, found out that she was getting paid less, and the Supreme Court said that she couldn’t bring suit because she should have found out about it earlier, when she had no way of finding out about it.
So we fixed that. And that’s an example of the kind of advocacy that we need because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women’s issue. This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue. And that’s why we’ve got to fight for it…I’ve got two daughters and I want to make sure that they have the same opportunities that anybody’s sons have.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
Despite his “four pinocchio” promise of creating 12 million jobs as president, Gov. Romney at one point chanted “government doesn’t create jobs, government doesn’t create jobs.”
But a whopping 80 percent of Millennials agree that “government investments in education, infrastructure, and science are necessary to ensure America’s long-term economic growth,” compared to just 6 percent who disagree, according to a report from the Center for American Progress, our parent organization.
On income inequality, Millennials also overwhelmingly feel that the government should have a hand in closing the income inequality gap and supporting the Buffett Rule, a proposal by President Obama to increase taxes on those making more than $1 million per year, and which Romney had staunchly opposed. The report notes that:
- 73 percent of college-age Millennials ages 18 to 24 agree that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”
- 72 percent favor “increasing the tax rate on Americans earning more than $1 million a year.”
- 69 percent agree that “the government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor.”
The topic of gun control was also addressed on Tuesday—the first time in these debates—and it prompted a response from Stephen Barton, one of the survivors of the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting earlier this year. He said: “The demands of 270,000 Americans for President Obama and Governor Romney to address gun violence broke through during tonight’s debate. I am glad that a concerned citizen asked about guns—but sadly, there were no real answers. We are going to keep demanding a specific plan from both candidates to end gun violence.”
Gov. Romney said he did not support codifying into law any new regulations on gun control.
“I am not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns,” he said. “We of course don’t want to have automatic weapons … and it’s already illegal.” (However, that’s not true, as Think Progress noted.)
Instead of policy proposals, Romney implied that single mothers or non-traditional families are a factor in violence rates:
But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea. Because if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will — will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system.
The opinion pages and airwaves are already overflowing with back-and-forth between pundits about who won the debate, but one thing’s for sure: Young people had the chance Tuesday night to hear President Obama and Gov. Romney speak directly on the issues they care about, and that is a real victory.