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The questionable politics behind Biden’s student loan debt relief

Enacting policies that benefit people doesn’t necessarily earn their vote.

- May 1, 2024
New graduates at Germanna Community College in Virginia, May 2023.
Spring 2023 commencement ceremony (cc) Germanna Community College.

Since the Supreme Court struck down Joe Biden’s initial plan to relieve student loan debt, the Biden administration has continued to look for ways to do it anyway.

There are still legal objections to this, as well as debates about whether debt relief is good policy. The politics behind the effort also came in recently for criticism: Nate Silver noted that a new poll of 18- to 29-year olds suggests that student loan debt relief isn’t a high priority for them.

But my question about the politics is broader: Should we expect voters to support Biden because he relieved student debt?

To some, the answer is obviously yes. Consider this from a recent piece in The Hill, headlined “Student debt relief could be lifeline to swing states, young voters for Biden”:

President Biden is pouring a tremendous amount of political capital into student loan relief ahead of the November election, and experts say the impact in key states could be crucial.

“The swing states are going to be kind of where we look to see the biggest targeted return, states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan,” said Michael Hopkins, CEO of Northern Starr Strategies.

The few remaining purple states have seen billions of dollars in student loan forgiveness since Biden took office, and with polling showing a tight race with former President Trump, every voter counts.

“Loan borrowers in the country, distressed student loan borrowers, I think they are the largest, really politically untethered voting bloc in modern American history,” said Alan Collinge, founder of StudentLoanJustice.org. “This is a huge group of people who vote in a much higher percentage than average.”

But I am far from sure that student loan policies will provide a “lifeline” for Biden. Here’s why.

The limits of “policy feedback”

Some useful reading is an article titled “Democrats’ Misplaced Faith in Policy Feedback” by political scientists Daniel Galvin and Chloe Thurston. “Policy feedback” refers to this idea: “voters express their enthusiasm for the policy benefits they receive by voting for the party they associate most closely with the policy’s enactment.” That’s the theory underlying these claims about student debt relief.

Galvin and Thurston go on to complicate this theory significantly. At times, they argue, policies fail to generate durable positive feedback because policymakers can’t control how those policies evolve. Policies can change, be undermined, erode in effectiveness, and so on. Policies can also inspire a backlash that loses a party more votes than it gains.

Even policies that proceed as intended may not, as Galvin and Thurston put it, “activate their own supportive constituencies.” Voters may not know that the policy even came from the government, much less that it was championed by a president or a political party. And if the policy is itself subject to partisan debate, then partisanship may shape opinions more than experience with the policy itself shapes people’s partisanship.

The Affordable Care Act didn’t help Democrats

The 2010 Affordable Care Act is an example. It was, of course, the hope of Democrats that expanding access to health care would help them win votes. That was always a long shot. The ACA did not affect how most Americans got their health care. And the types of people who did benefit – such as poorer Americans who gained access to Medicaid – do not often participate in politics, as political scientist Jamila Michener has found. 

Immediately after the ACA’s passage, the math actually worsened because the backlash exceeded any benefits to Democrats. Members of Congress who voted for the ACA appeared to win fewer votes in the 2010 midterm elections.

Then, as the ACA began to roll out, electoral benefits for Democrats remained hard to identify. In states that expanded Medicaid, two studies found higher voter turnout in 2012 and/or 2014. Some of this may have been due to the mobilization of ACA opponents, not to ACA beneficiaries showing up to vote for Democrats. Moreover, any effects on turnout were gone by 2016 – even though Donald Trump was actively campaigning for the ACA to be repealed. Indeed, in 2016 it was easy to find ACA beneficiaries voting for Trump.

Ultimately, as Galvin and Thurston note, partisanship became the lens through which people viewed the ACA, rather than the ACA being the reason they changed their partisanship. Partisanship not only affected opinion of the ACA, as is thoroughly documented in political scientist Dan Hopkins’ book Stable Condition, but also whether people chose to use the ACA’s benefits in the first place. According to research by Amy Lerman, Meredith Sadin, and Samuel Trachtman, Republicans were less likely than Democrats to obtain health insurance from one of the federal or state exchanges set up under the ACA. Any direct experience with the ACA had, at best, offsetting effects – with some people becoming more favorable to the act but others becoming less favorable.

As Hopkins sums it up, “the mere existence of positive personal experiences with the ACA has not translated into a significant political dividend for its authors.”

The limits of “gifts”

After the 2012 election, Mitt Romney blamed his loss on the “gifts” that Democrats gave to voters. Here’s how Lynn Vavreck and I summarized Romney’s comments in our book on that election: 

He credited Obama’s victory to “gifts” that the Obama administration had given Democratic constituencies – “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and young people.” Romney went on to single out such policy “gifts” as “forgiveness of college loan interests,” “free contraceptives,” and “Obamacare” as mobilizing young people. He cited Obamacare as mobilizing black and Hispanic voters. He also suggested that “the amnesty for children of illegals” – Obama’s June 15 decision to allow children of illegal immigrants to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation – helped Obama with Latinos.

Others argued that the government bailout of car companies might have helped Obama with white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. These are all claims of “policy feedback.”

But evidence for these claims was elusive. Obama didn’t do better in counties with auto plants, in fact. In our book, we showed that news coverage of issues like contraception and abortion didn’t affect people’s views of Obama and Romney and that it wasn’t clear these issues netted the Democrats many votes on election day. Obama’s June 15, 2012 immigration decision didn’t create an obvious boost in his support among Latinos. 

We didn’t have the data to test Romney’s loan forgiveness argument, but this other evidence suggests that policy feedback wasn’t behind Obama’s win in 2012. 

The takeaway

The claim here isn’t that experience with public policies never has any political effect whatsoever. And I can already hear people saying that 2024 will be a close election and so even if student debt relief has a small effect on who votes or how they vote, it could still help Biden, etc., etc. Maybe that could prove true. 

But given Galvin and Thurston’s argument and other evidence, I wouldn’t advise Biden to bet on it. Debt relief may not prove any sort of “lifeline” for his campaign.