The story of how college affordability became the Democrats' big idea

A party in search of a unifying message

Democrats were crushed in the 2014 midterm elections.

In the aftermath, analysts blamed the party's message, Mikhail Zinshteyn writes for The Atlantic.

"Our main point was 'no,'" Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), told The Atlantic. "Democrats lost because the Democratic party brand was not associated with big, bold, economic populist ideas," Green said.

"It was an election about nothing," he added.

So his organization kicked off the Big Idea Project. PCCC collected thousands of major policy proposals from voters and legislators and then tallied more than one million online votes to determine the most popular suggestion.

Debt-free college won.

Finally, PCCC tested debt-free college against a poll of 1,500 likely voters—who confirmed that it would be a popular choice.

PCCC distributed the results to top Democratic officials, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), leader of the Democratic Policy Committee. Shortly thereafter, a series of policy workshops on the idea appeared, followed by resolutions in the House and Senate calling for debt-free college.

Also see: Why are all the presidential candidates talking about higher ed?

Political analysts speaking at a higher education seminar last month said debt-free college could become Democrats' new signature issue now that health care reform has been accomplished.

Terry Hartle, SVP at the American Council on Education, isn't surprised that higher education has become more of a political issue.

While health care "used to be the centerpiece of Democratic presidential campaigns for a long time," Hartle told The Atlantic, "higher education now occupies that place."

Hartle also believes that Republicans will soon begin talking more about higher education and college affordability. Right now, Hartle argues, Republicans are focusing on voters who will vote in the primary elections—but "this issue just isn't a matter of concern to Republican primary voters."

But Hartle believes higher education will play a bigger role in Republicans' general campaign because then the party will be competing with Democrats for more centrist voters (Zinshteyn, The Atlantic, 10/14).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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