Will Student Loans Impact the Election? Here’s What the Experts Say

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With the national student debt surpassing $1.64 trillion, student loans have surfaced as a major topic during the presidential race. But as the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis loom over the election, student loans might no longer be at the forefront of voters’ minds.

So although student loans remain a hot-button issue for some debt-burdened borrowers, their ability to sway large groups of voters may have faded, several public polling experts told Student Loan Hero.

Student loan debt was a focus during the primaries

Looking back to earlier this year during the primaries, student loans were a major topic of discussion, specifically among Democratic candidates, according to Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“Student loan debt – as well as college costs in general – was an agenda issue during the Democratic primaries,” said Murray. “What this means is that it was significant enough among primary voters that all candidates needed to respond to it in some way.”

But Murray doesn’t think the national student debt remains a major concern for most voters.

“As to the general election, it’s certainly important to those carrying [student debt], but it does not seem to be a defining issue in determining vote choice,” he said.

A recent poll from Politico and Morning Consult supports this conclusion, finding that just 6% of respondents prioritized education issues such as student debt when voting for federal offices.

Voters with student loans may gravitate toward Democrats

As for concerned student loan borrowers, Murray predicts that a majority of their votes will likely go to Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“One thing we see is that Biden has a significant lead among voters under the age of 35, regardless of whether they have a college degree or not, which can be a proxy for student loan debt,” he said.

J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of political newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agrees that debt-burdened borrowers may well favor Biden, particularly due to his proposals for tuition-free public college and partial federal student loan forgiveness.

“If that’s an issue that’s important to you, I don’t think you’re supporting [President Donald] Trump,” said Coleman. “That’s not really an issue he’s mentioned, whereas it’s received quite a bit of traction on the Democratic side.”

In particular, Coleman thinks focusing on student loan issues could help Biden among younger voters.

“Millennials and younger voters in general tend to lean more Democratic overall, so the Democrats would want more of a progressive student loan plan to appeal to their natural demographic constituency,” he said.

Coleman also says this issue could potentially appeal to older voters who want their children and grandchildren to avoid a large student debt.

“If the Democrats and Biden can frame this as an issue of ‘If you want your grandkids to have a better future or if we could get rid of some of this student loan debt, it will be less of a burden on future generations,’ that may help with the senior vote as well,” he said.

Student loan concerns may reemerge when forbearance ends

While student loan reform was in the spotlight a few months ago, it seems to have faded into the background due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Student loans are not at the forefront right now,” said Coleman. “The pandemic tends to dominate everything. Perhaps if we get a vaccine or if the pandemic becomes less of an issue, then student loan issues could get a bit more traction.”

Sarah Sattelmeyer, the director of the student borrower success project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says student loans will be a major problem for Americans when the temporary period of emergency federal forbearance comes to an end.

“While Congress and the White House have acted to help mitigate the challenges that borrowers are facing by pausing payments, interest charges and collection efforts through the end of the year, these difficulties are likely to outlast temporary interventions,” Sattelmeyer said.

Once the forbearance period ends, she said, tens of millions of borrowers will be expected to transition back into active repayment, despite ongoing financial insecurity.

“During and after the pandemic, policymakers need a clear understanding of the points within the repayment process where borrowers typically lose their way, and specific actions that can promote successful repayment,” she said. “While understanding this was important before the pandemic, now, it’s even more critical.”

Coleman agrees, adding that student loan debt is likely to become a driving issue in elections in the future.

“It’s probably going to take years to recover from most of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Coleman. “But even though student debt may not be on top of the issues now, I think most millennials realize that at some point, we’re going to need to have someone who understands this issue.”

Published in News & Policy