WASHINGTON – The energy of mobilized young voters that helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 will certainly be a challenge to recreate this year – it’s hard to campaign on change as the incumbent.
But just as the unprecedented youth involvement in his campaign was a driving force in his election four years ago, political apathy among many young people today could create problems for his re-election.
According to the Pew Research Center, just 13 percent of voters aged 18 – 29, known as the Millennial generation, have given a lot of thought to the 2012 candidates, down from 28 percent four years ago. Alison Waters, 21, voted for Obama in 2008 because she wanted to see a radical departure from the Bush administration.
Now, she said she is not sure what she will do in November.
“I’m not dead-set on voting for him,” she said. “I’m not super jazzed about him anymore, as much as I was in 2008.”
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit aimed at engaging young people in the political process, said it’s the inevitable relationship plateau that comes from too much time spent together.
“They’ve gotten to know him a little bit better,” she said. “So maybe some of the excitement and the butterflies are gone.”
This isn’t good news for the Obama camp, which wants to stir up enthusiasm as much as possible. So far, a source close to the campaign said, the effort is emphasizing Obama’s accomplishments as president. Dubbed “Greater Together,” the youth outreach program uses social media and grassroots organization to underscore these highlights – and campaign officials are confident young voters are listening. Last summer, more than 12,000 people applied for the campaign’s volunteer summer organizer program – an increase from 2008 – a triumph, they say, especially in a non-election year.
Campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing said Obama has made young Americans a priority, and their enthusiasm will shine in his battle for another term.
“Just as young people came out in huge numbers to organize and lead a movement in 2008, their energy and commitment will help build this campaign again in 2012,” Ewing said.
Indifference: a product of disappointment
The excitement of a fresh face, a new set of rules and a world of new possibilities that attracted young people to Obama more than any other candidate four years ago faded as those young voters got to know him. His approval rating among young voters has dropped significantly, from 74 percent in his first week in office to 53 percent as of Jan. 15. And 47 percent of Millennials say they are disappointed with Obama.
A freshman at Georgetown University, Sebastian Silva, 19, appreciates what Obama has accomplished as president. He was pleased with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq.
“I don’t want to say, obviously, that nothing has changed,” Silva said. “Things have changed. But it wasn’t the great new hope that a lot of people thought was going to come.”
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, which analyzes civic engagement in politics, said the high expectations young people had for Obama contributed to their dissatisfaction.
The 2008 election turnout “was built on soaring hope for a leader who could make major changes and address some of the major problems that the country faced,” Gans said. “I think that hope has been substituted with disappointment.”
Liberals and those who wanted a quick solution to the economic recession have been disappointed the most, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which researches civic education and engagement. If voters wanted single-payer health care, climate change legislation and the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Obama let them down.
As those voters get older, Levine said, these broken promises could negatively affect their engagement in politics, and ultimately, if they even vote at all.
“Being involved when you’re young leads to a lifetime of involvement,” Levine said. “Being bitterly disappointed when you’re young might be permanently discouraging.”
Social change or economic solutions?
With election attention focused on the GOP primary, the president has yet to really emerge on the campaign stage. That means young voters could find a better option in another candidate.
Generally moderate, Republican Mitt Romney doesn’t completely turn off left-leaning young voters. And he has the business savvy to challenge the president’s questionable economic record.
Even though she was not old enough to cast a ballot, Natalie Coppa, 19, supported Obama in 2008. Now, she said she could see herself voting for Romney.
“I am definitely going to look into his candidacy pretty seriously because I do agree with how he wants to tackle the economy,” Coppa, a sophomore at the University of Miami, said.
Coppa does not agree with Romney on social issues (she is pro-choice and in favor of legalizing gay marriage), but right now, that is not at the forefront of her mind.
“In the next four years, the most pressing issues that the United States has, they aren’t the social issues,” she said. “I think that both candidates, whoever wins the primary for the Republicans, and Obama, realize that there are more important things than gay marriage in terms of the country as a whole, and I just…don’t think that those are going to be tackled. So I think I could look past [a candidate’s view of] them.”
Even if social issues won’t be the next president’s main priority, they still matter to young voters. Michele Moses, a sophomore at Northwestern University, said she could never sleep at night knowing she voted for someone who did not support gay marriage.
“But at the same time, if I’m basing it on who’s going to do the most good for our country, I really have to do more research,” Moses, 19, said. “I’m not 100 percent committed, but at this point, I would almost feel ashamed supporting any of the other candidates.”
Both Coppa and Moses illustrate the dichotomy plaguing young voters: whether to vote on the economy, which could play a catastrophic role in the post-college job hunt, or to support a candidate who shares their social beliefs.
More than anything else, that conflict has led to uncertainty. Faced with just-okay GOP candidates and a president who has lost his just-out-of-the-box sparkle, Gans said, young people’s turnout for the election will most definitely dwindle.
“I’m relatively sure that voter turnout for younger voters will be lower,” Gans said. “We’re talking about a downturn. And that’s going to happen.”
Waters, a senior at Pepperdine University, said she feels herself caring less and less about presidential politics.
“I could see myself maybe going and voting for whatever the propositions that they have [on the ballot] in California, then just leaving it blank for president,” she said, “because I haven’t decided or don’t really care either way.”
Though Obama’s youth base from four years ago may be less enthusiastic about his performance now, most still agree with his basic positions on the issues.
Smith said that like any committed partner, young voters will give Obama another chance.
“They still are hungry to find a path for a better future, and participate in someone who shares a vision they believe in.”