Katelyn Boissoneau, 19, is studying elementary education at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. She’s also a registered Republican who is not yet sure who will get her vote in the 2024 presidential primary: former president Donald Trump or Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.
After hearing DeSantis speak at a Politics & Eggs event that was held on campus last Friday at the Institute of Politics, Boissoneau said she liked what he had to say about the economy. “That’s important to me, because I’m very worried about trying to buy a house in five to 10 years. I feel like he’d create an economy where it would be easier for students or for people our age to be able to do so,” she said after the event. But Trump remains an option. What’s his appeal? “Honestly, just how safe I felt in this country when he was president. Obviously, there’s a lot going on in the world right now,” said Boissoneau, citing the war in Ukraine and the attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists. “I just don’t really feel safe with Biden as president. I feel like Trump really created a safe environment here in America when he was president.”
The press loves the story of Quinn Mitchell, who achieved celebrity at age 15 by asking DeSantis whether he believed that Trump violated the peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6, 2021. But not all young people analyze the candidates through that prism. Their feelings of economic insecurity and a world in crisis take precedence. Whether you attribute that to selfishness or the very real challenges of life in 2023, it’s a warning to Democrats. Perception is reality, no matter what the job growth figures show, or the message of strength President Biden believes he is sending with his backing of Ukraine and Israel. Whether that perception still presents an opportunity for DeSantis is an open question.
Recent polling shows that in the race for second place behind Trump, DeSantis has lost ground in the Granite State, most significantly to Nikki Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina. After officially filing papers for his candidacy last week, DeSantis spent time trying to reassert dominance, mostly by talking tough about Israel’s right to defend itself and saying the United States should not accept any refugees from Gaza. But at the Politics & Eggs event, which was cosponsored by The New England Council, what he said about the economy seemed to connect most strongly with a small group of students in attendance, many of whom lined up afterward to take photos with him.
During a question and answer period, DeSantis was asked: “What is your appeal to young people, especially some younger conservatives who feel disenchanted with the Republican establishment, or disenchanted with politics in general and want to have a life that their parents do?” Much of his answer touted boilerplate Republican talking points about getting the economy “in order” and restoring the American dream — for Americans, not for those who aspire to become them. But he also relied heavily on his Florida track record, although not the record that gets the most media attention, such as the laws he signed to ban abortion after six weeks; the “Don’t Say Gay” ban on classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity; or one that prevents school employees and students from being required to refer to people by pronouns that don’t correspond to the person’s biological sex.
Instead, in his answer to how he would appeal to young people, DeSantis focused on how he had “vetoed billions of dollars of wasteful spending in Florida” and would push back on federal spending like Ronald Reagan did and how he would cut back on interest rates to make home ownership more affordable. He also pledged to do something about student debt. “I don’t think it’s fair that a truck driver should have to pay for somebody who’s got $100,000 in debt with a degree in Zombie science,” DeSantis said. Instead, he said, student loans should be backed by colleges and universities. “Harvard is basically a hedge fund with a university attached to it,” DeSantis said. “They can afford all this stuff.”
What that would mean for small colleges like Saint Anselm, DeSantis did not address. But his larger message resonated with Hannah Seymour, 20, a nursing student who is an independent and undecided about her vote. “I really liked the part when he was talking about education and how he was going to relieve some student debt,” she said. “I feel like with that initiative and what he would do for our economy, I feel like it will be really beneficial for our generation.” Brendan Collins, 20, who is a finance major, liked what he heard DeSantis say about reversing inflation. “As a young person, we can’t afford to pay for anything,” he said. Collins also liked what DeSantis had to say about bringing back “a sovereign United States.”
Earlier in his remarks, DeSantis said that includes securing the border to the point of stopping people he believes are associated with drug cartels by letting them know if they continue “you’re going to meet your maker.” Harsh talk like that drew applause from the audience of about 200 business and political people — and did not seem to turn off students who are keyed into worries about the economy and a world in chaos.