The Democrats have bolstered their narrative of an austerity-focused Republican ticket using Romney’s repeated statements that hiring more teachers won’t help grow the economy and that decreasing class size shouldn’t be a priority. They’ve sought to draw a contrast between those views and the investments that Obama has already made in education while in office, such as increasing the number of low-income college students receiving Pell Grants. Obama also reformed the student loan program and held student loan interest rates down. These changes, Obama says, have made college more affordable and student debt less daunting.
“It’s a positive theme for the future they can emphasize, rather than an attacking theme,” said David Lublin, a professor at American University.
Obama’s education messaging has put Romney on the defensive. The Republican contender abruptly promised in the first presidential debate that he wouldn’t cut education spending at all. He went from backing Ryan’s plan to tighten Pell Grant eligibility, which would shrink the number of students who receive federal help, to saying he wants the program to grow.
Romney has also discussed the need to drive down college costs and has mentioned a merit aid program he started for top performers in Massachusetts that provided scholarships for those who opted to attend in-state public universities and colleges. (The program ended up hurting students more than it helped them.)
Both candidates are trying to woo middle-class voters with these arguments and young ones as well. Young voters were crucial to Obama’s 2008 victory. While the demographic still supports him, polls suggest they’re less likely to vote this time. “President Obama needs to shore up his base,” Gillespie said. “He wants to frame himself, unlike the Republicans, as a champion of students.”
Romney has tried to close the youth gap between himself and Obama by frequently assuring those in college that he’ll have jobs waiting for them when they graduate.
Even if the Democrats have found a Republican weakness to exploit, however, it may be too little, too late. “I don’t think it’s been made enough of a focus that it’s necessarily a crystallized issue for the election,” Lublin said, adding the Democrats should have “identified [Romney] as negative on this issue before he changed his mind back to center.”
In all likelihood, education won’t be the No. 1 issue for many voters on Election Day. But the Obama campaign is hoping that some of its pro-education messaging—helped along by the repeated talk of teachers and schools—will sink in.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.