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Youth vote was key to Obama's 2008 win, but enthusiasm in 2012 is down

Amanda PaulsonThe Christian Science Monitor

Madeline Eckles made sure she registered to vote this year, and recently received her mail-in Colorado ballot. But the University of Colorado senior isn’t planning to fill it out.

“As an econ major, a lot of my views line up with [Mitt] Romney, but a lot of my values line up with [President] Obama,” says Ms. Eckles, as she grabs a snack with a friend at the university’s student center. “I’ve been kind of back and forth on who I wanted to vote for, so I decided not to vote.”

Four years ago, President Obama got nearly 16 million votes from so-called Millennials – young voters between ages 18 and 29. Not only did they vote for him over the GOP's John McCain by more than a 2-to-1 margin, but more of them voted than in almost any previous election since 18-year-olds were granted the vote in 1972. In three states – Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana – Mr. Obama won the state because of voters under the age of 30.

This year, with polls showing the race much closer than in 2008, Obama needs that youth vote more than ever. But it’s not clear if he’ll get it, at least in the numbers he’d like.

Polls show that young voters are less enthusiastic this year, and turnout may drop after steady gains in each election since 1996 (when youth turnout was at an all-time low). While young people still overwhelmingly support Obama over Mr. Romney, the margins aren’t as wide as they were four years ago when Senator McCain was the Republican nominee.

Obama “has a number of different pathways that I think can get him [to victory], but this is an important group,” says Scott Keeter, survey director for the Pew Research Center. “And I think the fact that it’s more up for grabs, both in terms of the split in vote among young people and in terms of the enthusiasm, is one reason the Obama campaign has been stressing social issues more at the end of the campaign.”

At an Obama rally at Boulder’s CU campus just five days before the election – his third visit there this year – Sen. Michael Bennett (D) of Colorado, in remarks to the crowd of 10,000 before Obama arrived, hit hard on those social issues – which are often important to younger voters in particular.

“Every vote is going to matter,” Senator Bennett told the crowd, many of them college students. “We need to vote today so we can make college more affordable, so we can make sure every young person can get a good education…. We need you to vote to keep politicians out of decisions best left to a woman and her doctor. We need you to vote to protect the rights of our LGBT friends…. That’s what’s at stake, Colorado, that’s the choice in this election.”

Obama, when he spoke, emphasized his main themes of jobs and help for the middle class, but also touched on issues important to many college students, such as student financial aid and the Obamacare provision that would allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they’re 26 years old.

At one point, he reminded the crowd of Romney’s remarks that students who can’t afford college should borrow money from their parents.

When the crowd booed his mentions of Romney, Obama interjected, “Don’t boo, vote!”

At another point, he told his audience that “protectors of the status quo” are “counting on you not voting.”

But Obama has some good reason to fear just that. A series of polls this fall have led to concerns that youths, this time around, are less engaged.

A Pew poll at the end of September found that just half of young people were even sure they were registered (compared with 61 percent at the same time in 2008), and just 63 percent said they definitely planned to vote, down from 72 percent four years ago.

While those numbers are not particularly shocking, given the significant degree to which young people have felt the burden of the sluggish economy and joblessness, they garnered a lot of attention.

But Mr. Keeter of Pew says they also tell only part of the story.

In subsequent polls, the portion of young people who say they definitely plan to vote has climbed to 75 percent, and the number who say they’re registered is up to 59 percent – still behind where it was at the same point in 2008, but by a narrower margin.

“Youth engagement is probably going to be down a little bit from where it was four years ago, but I don’t think that it’s a certainty at this point, and mobilization makes a huge amount of difference with this population,” says Keeter.

Those mobilization efforts were on display a week before the election on the CU campus in Boulder, a heavily Democratic area in a critical swing state. It was hard for students to walk more than 100 yards without being asked if they had voted yet (an early voting station was conveniently located on campus), and both graffiti and Obama volunteers all urged students to do their duty. Someone had written “VOTE” on a well traveled sidewalk using Obama-Biden stickers, and an enthusiastic Obama volunteer in a dog costume handed out bumper stickers.

“People have been really adamant about voting, and they show how important it is,” says Eric Gold, a CU student who saw Obama speak on campus earlier this fall and plans to vote for him.

While Obama is by far the most visible presence on the Boulder campus, he’s not capturing all students.

Alyssa Noe, a CU freshman who will be voting for the first time this fall, says she plans to vote for Romney – mostly because of his platform on abortion.

“I feel like the last election was based on race, wanting to make history,” says Ms. Noe, but this time around she believes that young people are looking more at the issues. Still, she notes, “I don’t know a lot of Romney supporters.”

Young people remain one of Obama’s best demographics, second in their support only to African-Americans. But while exit polls in 2008 showed that they preferred Obama over McCain by a staggering 68 percent to 32 percent, this year the difference isn’t so extreme.

In the most recent poll by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, which studies young voter trends, Obama had 52 percent of young people’s support, compared with 35 percent for Romney.

Pew’s late-October poll showed a 21 point advantage for Obama, compared with a 35 point advantage at that time four years ago. (By the last Pew poll, released two days before the election, however, that advantage had already widened to 28 points.)

Obama “is getting what looks like a narrow majority of support among young people rather than overwhelming support,” says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE. “From the president’s point of view, that’s the bigger problem” than dampened enthusiasm.

The decline in support, says Mr. Levine, comes from two major groups: moderate youths disappointed with progress on the economy, and left-leaning young people disappointed that Obama hasn’t been more progressive.

Still, Levine, like Keeter, says it’s hard to predict at this point what actual turnout will be.

“Young people are the most likely to change their minds to vote at the last minute,” Levine says.

He also says that what the polls are showing this time around may simply be a return to normal.

“The support that Barack Obama had in 2008 was completely out of line with any previous showing,” he says. “No other election has been anywhere near that lopsided.”

The question is: Can Obama win if young people don’t come out for him in droves?

Despite their massive support, in 2008 Obama would have won the election even if everyone under 30 had been prohibited from voting.

But this year is much closer, and any sizable constituency is important in a victory strategy. Even with slightly dampened turnout, there are likely to be about 23 million young voters casting a ballot this year.

“If young people don’t come out in as strong numbers, and if they don’t give their vote to President Obama in as strong a way as they did four years ago, given the closeness of this race they will probably play a pivotal role,” says Trey Grayson, director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP).

A recent IOP survey showed a lead of 19 percentage points for Obama among likely voters between the age of 18 and 29 – but Romney’s supporters were more likely to say they were “definitely” going to vote. And Obama’s lead would have been bigger in the poll if all those surveyed were likely to vote.

“That’s got to be a concern for the president,” says Mr. Grayson. “Those are votes he’s leaving at home.”

Interestingly, the IOC poll also showed that younger Millennials – those under 25 – are slightly more conservative than their older peers. “Something is going on with this youngest group,” says Grayson. “They may not have as strong an opinion on President Bush – all they see is the last four years, and the economy is not great.”

In fact, given that unemployment among Millennials stands at nearly 12 percent (and is even higher among those under 25), perhaps the more striking thing is that young people still favor Obama by such wide margins.

Tristan Hill, a CU freshman preparing to cast his first ballot, for Obama, says he thinks most of his friends will get out and vote – and will favor Obama – just without the enthusiasm they might have had four years ago.

“Cynicism has set in,” says Mr. Hill, adding that while he’s certainly voting, he’s wouldn’t say he’s excited about it. “It’s not going to be a change-the-world-thing this time around.”