ELMHURST, Ill. – What a difference four years can make.
In 2008, college campuses were filled with campaign posters and political rallies – and frenzy. Remember Obamamania? This year, its difficult to find a college student whos truly excited about the presidential race.
Politics has gone back to that thing you dont want to bring up, says Abraham Mulberry. Hes a freshman at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago whos trying to start a club for young Democrats.
Last election, his campus had an active Students for Obama chapter, organized well before the election. But this time, theres nary a campaign placard, for either President Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
I wouldnt say the election is the No. 1 hot-button issue here, Mulberry says, disappointedly.
Granted, you dont see many signs of campaign enthusiasm in the neighborhoods that surround his campus, or elsewhere for that matter. But its telling that, on many college campuses across the country – where, in 2008, then-candidate Obamas messages of hope and change easily took hold – the mood is markedly more subdued.
Certainly, some (young people) have stopped believing, says Molly Andolina, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago who tracks young voters. Maybe thats inevitable. For structural reasons, its easier to offer hope and change as a candidate than as a president.
Excitement was so high, it really had nowhere to go but down, she says. This time, theres also no obvious chance to make history, as there was when students helped elect the countrys first African-American president.
For young voters, it was like going to Woodstock, says John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard Universitys Institute of Politics.
Now like a lot of Americans, theyre more worried about the economy and finding jobs. Voter ID laws in some states, which ban or restrict the use of student IDs at the polls, also are causing confusion on campuses – at a time when students are already weary and cynical about political bickering in Washington.
Lots of people thought President Obama could go in and break gridlock, and that didnt happen, says Ethan Weber, a senior at Miami University in Ohio, wholl be graduating in December. Thats the scariest thing to a lot of young people – that nothing is going to happen.
In 2008, Weber cast a halfhearted vote for Republican John McCain, certain Obama would win. This time, hes voting for Romney and sees the election as a toss-up.
Still lean Democrat
He is still in the minority in the 18- to 29-year-old age group, according to polls. Young people are leaning strongly Democratic, as they traditionally do, and favor Obama by a wide margin – though some pollsters say the youngest new voters are showing signs that they may buck that trend.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month found that 61 percent of registered voters in the 18-to-29 bracket support the president, compared with 30 percent for Romney.
In 2008, young people ended up voting for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin, with just over half of U.S. citizens, ages 18 to 29, casting a ballot in 2008. Though older generations are still more likely to vote – about two-thirds of citizens older than 30 did so in 2008, for instance – young voters turnout was larger than it had been in recent years, and was particularly notable because their wide margin of support helped lift Obama into office.
It remains to be seen, however, whether theyll show up at the polls this time.
A Gallup poll taken Aug. 27-Sept. 16 found that 63 percent of registered voters, ages 18 to 29, said they definitely plan to vote. That compares with at least 80 percent of registered voters in older age brackets who said the same.
By comparison, before the election in 2008, 79 percent of young registered voters said they definitely planned to cast a ballot, according to a Time/Abt SRBI poll, taken in later September of that year. Older voters were about as committed to vote then as they are this time.
New voters’ voices
For a whole new crop of eligible voters – those who werent yet 18 in November 2008 – this will be the first time theyre able to cast a ballot. And that has Della Volpe at Harvard wondering whether the enthusiasm gap may be, at least partly, the result of a growing schism between older and younger millennials, the age group of those whove reached adulthood in the new millennium.
Older millennials came of age amid the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, sparking some to become more civically and politically engaged. Meanwhile, the political awakening of the younger millennials is happening during the recession, Della Volpe says.
How that will affect them, or influence this election, remains to be seen.
But already, Della Volpe and his staff have found that Obama holds a wider margin of support among older twentysomethings than with potential voters who are 18 to 24 – especially 18- and 19-year-olds.
Whether Republicans know that, or are simply acknowledging young voters influence on the last election, they have been spending more time courting college students lately.
Republican Paul Ryan, being framed as the younger vice presidential candidate, has spent time on campuses recently. George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also has been making the rounds at colleges and universities in his state, to try to generate interest in Republicans.
That is a very, very astute move by Republicans, Della Volpe says. They wont win the youth vote overall, he predicts, but they might win the white 18- to 24-year-old vote – and they could block some additional gains that Obama might make.
It means a lot depends on these next few weeks, especially since studies have shown that young voters are often late to engage in an election, even in a presidential year.
Young voters tend to make up their minds about whether they will vote – and for whom – much later than older voters, says Brian Harward, a political scientist at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.