Sara Valentine, 20, may be President Barack Obama’s ideal voter in Ohio: She had the distinction of casting the first vote in Franklin County after spending the previous night in the rain trying to fire up her college peers to vote.
Obama isn’t leaving to chance the support of voters like Valentine, one of his foot soldiers at Ohio State University in Columbus. He needs the state’s youngest voting bloc, dubbed the millenials, to show up at the polls to win re-election.
Slideshow: The Battle for the Presidency... of Ohio?
Obama won more than 60 percent of the vote among 18- to 29- year-olds in 2008, which comprised 17 percent of the Buckeye State electorate and provided the margin of victory. It’ll be a challenge to match that in this year’s election.
Graphic: Stumping for the Student Vote
“The enthusiasm isn’t quite at the same level as it was in 2008; that was kind of an unparalleled election,” said Hillary Doyle, 21, who works for OSU Votes, a nonpartisan campus committee focused on voter registration and education. The 2012 election is no longer “such a motion of change,” said her colleague Alfred Yates, 21.
Obama still is forecast to win big among young voters in the Nov. 6 election. In a survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics of likely voters younger than 30, he led Republican challenger Mitt Romney 55 percent to 36 percent. Forty-eight percent of young adults surveyed said they would “definitely” vote, according to the survey released Oct. 17.
Tough to Mobilize
Compounding the diminished enthusiasm is that more than half of Ohio’s 18- to 24-year-olds aren’t in college and harder to mobilize and engage, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Still, the Obama campaign says it can compensate for the reduced intensity. The campaign has much more of a head start in the state than in 2008: It has been organizing in Ohio for the past three and a half years.
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The campaign has thousands of student volunteers across the state, many employing social-media platforms such as Facebook Inc. (FB) and Twitter Inc., which weren’t used as widely four years ago. On Election Day in 2008, there were 1.8 million tweets; now that many tweets are sent every six minutes, according to Rachael Horwitz, a Twitter spokeswoman.
At Ohio State, “we are an armada of volunteers, we are organizing so well,” Valentine, president of Buckeyes for Obama and a campaign intern, said in an interview. “We are talking, we are on social media, we are everywhere.”
Obama has been focusing on college campuses as places to rally and galvanize young voters -- many of them voting for the first time in a presidential election.
Since March, the president has crisscrossed the state, appearing on at least seven campuses, including Ohio State; Ohio University in Athens in the southeast; Bowling Green State University in the northwest; Kent State University in the northeast; Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland; Cleveland State University, and Capital University in Columbus.
Obama three times this year has gone to Ohio State, the largest public university in the state with more than 56,000 students.
The president’s repeat appearance makes it “very evident” that people “across the country are looking at Ohio State and the young vote at one of the largest campuses in the country,” said Yates, the co-chair of OSU Votes, sitting in a courtyard of the Ohio Union and donning a dress shirt, tie and cufflinks.
Angelle Bradford, 20, who grew up in Louisiana, registered and voted early for Obama in Franklin County. “It was so cool to be at OSU, to be in a swing state, to actually feel like for once my vote meant more than just being discounted,” she said as she walked into the campus’s Gateway Film Center to watch the final presidential debate held in Florida on Oct. 22. Bradford is an intern working for the Obama campaign.
“College campuses are high-yield places to try and recruit voters to your side,” said Paul Beck, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Ohio State, in a telephone interview.
When Obama visited Ohio State on Oct. 9, he drew a crowd of about 15,000 with the help of performer will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Buses took about 500 students to the early-voting location about seven miles away, off Interstate 71. The party with will.i.am continued in the parking lot of the voting location, according to Don Klco and Frederick Stratmann, managers of the early-voting center.
The Obama campaign has an office on campus with student volunteers. A poster plastered on the front window calls for students to “catch a ride with us” to vote early, until Nov. 1. The sweetener: “Free Food; Come Together; Make History.”
At an Oct. 17 rally at Ohio University in Athens, the state’s fourth-largest public university, Obama urged a crowd of 14,000 to grab “some friends” to vote the next day. “Go vote. See, my assumption is if you’re here you’re going to vote. So you’ve got to go back to your dorm, grab that guy who’s sitting there eating chips, watching SportsCenter. Tell him he’s got to vote, too,” Obama said to laughter.
The young-voter turnout will be concentrated in Athens, said Patrick Duffy, 24, a graduate of the university, who now works as a private contractor for state representative Debbie Phillips, a Democrat.
With the state of the U.S. economy at the forefront in this election, Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has crafted his appeal to young voters by concentrating his message on job creation and opportunities. He has criticized Obama’s tours of colleges, saying the president would make “promises of free stuff” to re-engage students and get them to vote for him.
While Obama’s support among college-age students and those under 30 is unmatched by Romney, the challenger probably will siphon off some millennial voters from Obama’s corner.
Miranda Onnen, 20, a Cincinnati native who is part of Ohio State’s College Republicans, said she registered in the county and voted early for Romney. “He’s the one that is going to get things done,” she said at the Ohio Union. “He’s going to help me get a job out of college.”
Complicating Obama’s math this year may be disillusionment over economic policies among “the radical left,” such as those who backed the Occupy Wall Street movement, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. There’s a “pretty good chance they won’t vote,” he said in a telephone interview.
If turnout is somewhat reduced this year, “it’s something of a return to the normal,” compared with 2008, Levine said.
While larger public universities have been the center of attention in the campaign, smaller colleges scattered across Ohio are part of Obama’s calculation to boost turnout.
At private Otterbein University in Westerville outside Columbus the atmosphere is subdued with no election buzz echoing through the tree-strewn campus. Still, some students interviewed there said they’ve voted early or plan to vote.
“The enthusiasm is really high this year,” said Tyler Cromwell, 19, a nursing student, who voted early for Obama. “A lot of my friends were having debate-watch parties.”
Kenyon College “is an island of Democrats in a Republican sea,” said John Elliott, a political science professor at the college in Gambier. In Republican-dominated Knox County, Obama campaigners are in a countering mode rather than finding “ready-made” supporters, according to Elliott.
“People at Kenyon will absolutely turn out to vote,” said Sarah Marnell, the president of Kenyon Democrats. She and Sydney Watnick, the group’s vice president, have been doing early-voter drives and canvassing.
“It’s a different moment than it was in 2008,” Marnell said. “It’s not quite as monumental,” she said. Still, “the support is very strong.”
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