Over at FrumForum, Nils August Andresen tries to figure out why university students have become so anti-Republican even though they themselves haven't gotten especially more liberal over the past few decades. A changing ethnic mix might be part of it, but:
Let me advance another hypothesis. Today’s top students are motivated less by enthusiasm for Democrats and much more by revulsion from Republicans. It’s not the students who have changed so much. It’s the Republicans.
....Under Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, Republicans championed science and knowledge. But over the past 30 years, national Republicans have formed an intensifying alliance with religious conservatives more skeptical of science and knowledge....Educated people may also be extra-sensitive to policy positions that do not make logical sense. While individual elements of the Republican platform can make sense on their own, the combination of demands to reduce the deficit, plus increase Medicare spending, plus opposing reform meant to save costs, plus uncompromising insistence on tax cuts just does not add up. Granted, Democrats have also behaved irresponsibly in opposition. Still, I think it’s fair to say that over the past decade, the Republicans have convinced educated America that they are the less policy serious party.
Just to be clear: my guess is that this is primarily a reaction to social conservatism. Students at top universities just can't stomach the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-civil rights, anti-religious-tolerance attitude of the current GOP. But Andresen's conjecture about "policy positions that do not make logical sense" may have something to it too. In the mid-70s, for example, liberal interest groups engaged in their own version of magical thinking by pushing hard for the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment act, which essentially tried to mandate low unemployment by fiat. Jimmy Carter eventually managed to water it down into a purely symbolic piece of legislation, but the sheer spectacle of liberal lunacy on display for months on end probably turned off a lot of smart students. Liberals eventually learned their lesson on this score — overlearned it, in fact — but their place in the magical thinking department was immediately taken over by supply-side Republicans, who have gotten ever more hardened and ever balmier during the past couple of decades.
I doubt that this is the main cause of the defection of the elite university vote, but it could be part of it. Older voters might be willing to accept Republican incoherence simply because it's in their interest to do so and they don't really care if the arguments make sense, but younger voters don't have that same motivation. Republican magical thinking doesn't really benefit them, so they're just repelled by it.