Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and College Towns

If Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and/or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal decide to jump into the 2016 presidential race, their actions on public universities are likely to draw attention – and recent history in Kansas suggests it could be a challenge for them.

In Wisconsin, Mr. Walker wants to cut about $300 million from the University of Wisconsin’s budget over the next two years and forbid the school from raising tuition, while giving it more independence is managing contracts and construction. In Louisiana, Mr. Jindal’s proposed budget would mean a $200 million reduction in state funding for L.S.U.

Those are big numbers and a few states away, in Kansas, there are hints they could cause trouble for the two governors when one looks at the 2014 election results for Gov. Sam Brownback.

Mr. Brownback was reelected last November but by a much smaller margin (4 percentage points) than he won with in 2010 (31 points) after big tax and spending cuts in his state that hit higher education. It wasn’t just the difference in votes that’s noteworthy, however, it’s where the differences were the most noticeable. Mr. Brownback took a big hit in college towns around the state.

In most elections, Kansas is pretty easy to color in. It’s a sea of red other than Douglas County, home of Lawrence and the University of Kansas, and Wyandotte, home of Kansas City. Indeed that was the case in Mr. Brownback’s first race in 2010, where the map had that pattern.

But the map for the 2014 governor’s race, between Mr. Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis, looked different. Mr. Brownback lost seven counties, taking an especially hard hit in the state’s college communities.

Five of the counties that Mr. Brownback lost in the state are labeled as College Towns in the demographic breakdown of the American Communities Project – Douglas, Riley, Shawnee, Crawford and Lyon. And those counties are all home to public universities: Respectively, the University of Kansas, Kansas State U., Washburn University, Pittsburg State U. and Emporia State U.

And Mr. Brownback didn’t just lose those five counties, he was pounded in them. The Democrat, Mr. Davis, won them 61% to 36%. Four years earlier he won them 50% to 45%. He lost the total vote out of the state’s six College Town counties badly, as you can see on the chart below.

While Mr. Brownback lost ground across the state in 2014 compared to 2010, the College Towns were particularly bad ground for him. He lost a net 30 points in those counties, compared to 27 points statewide.

And maybe most critical, turnout in the College Towns was up dramatically (more than 8 percentage points) compared to the rest of the state (less than 3 percentage points). Those counties produced 11,000 more votes than they did in 2010. You can see the Kansas College Towns on the map below in light brown.

In the coming 2016 presidential election one big question is can the Democratic nominee, whoever that is, generate the same enthusiasm from young people that President Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012. The numbers out of Kansas suggest big cuts to universities can be a motivating factor.

It’s not clear how broadly applicable the numbers from Kansas are as 2016 approaches. It may be that Mr. Brownback’s experience is an outlier. Students and parents in Wisconsin and Louisiana and other states may welcome a politician putting his foot down on the exorbitant increases in college costs.

The College Board estimates that the average cost tuition, fees and room and board at public universities has gone from about $4,100 in 1999 to $9,100 this academic year.

But, ultimately, cuts to university budgets aren’t likely to have a positive effect on tuition costs. In fact, voters may worry the cuts will spawn bigger increases.

Furthermore, not every state is as solidly Republican as Kansas. The effects could be bigger outside the Jayhawk State.

If their proposed cuts go through and Mr. Walker and Mr. Jindal run for president, they may find themselves with big questions from two groups voters, not just students in College Towns, but their parents back home.

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