Reid Cherlin, a former Barack Obama staffer, has an excellent new GQ piece about the Obama campaign's effort to win "base voters." The most crucial segment of the base vote for Obama, Cherlin explains, is young people.
But young people aren't necessarily cooperating. Cherlin imagines a college kid named Zach, "snoozing in an upper bunk at State U": "Young Zach likes Obama. So do his buddies. They appreciate that they can stay on their parents' health care plans until they're 26 if they need to. They like that the wars are ending. They're indifferent to Romney, at best."
"The only question is," Cherlin concludes his scenario, "are Zach and his buddies even going to bother to vote?"
Obama's problem with young voters this year is not that we don’t like him. (Spoiler alert: At 22, I am firmly in the "young Obama voter" demographic.) It's whether we'll vote for him.
Polling data from the Pew Research Center shows that among young likely voters, Obama leads Mitt Romney 56 percent to 35 percent (four years ago, Obama won the youth vote over Senator John McCain 66-32). Another survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics found that Obama has a 22 percentage point lead over Romney among all individuals (not merely likely voters) ages 18 to 29. But -- and here's the catch -- it also showed that young Romney voters were 10 percentage points (65 percent to 55 percent) more likely to say they would "definitely" vote.
My problem with young voters this year is not our apathy. We're not always so on top of things, like registering to vote or requesting absentee ballots or getting to the polls on Tuesday morning before heading to work or school. Besides, the apathy is by all accounts bipartisan: Pew Center research says the drop in engagement in voters under 40 is almost the same among Democrats and Republicans, and 43 percent of young likely non-voters in the Harvard survey agreed that "it doesn't matter who's elected, Washington is broken."
This hardly qualifies as insight, I realize. It's not just young voters (or young candidates) who are fed up with Washington. Still, it doesn’t bother me as much as another rationale Cherlin identifies in his piece. He talks to a frat boy at the University of Colorado who says, while drinking beer, that he suspects young people voted in 2008 largely because they wanted to help elect the first black president. "Now, it's almost like Obama's old news," he says.
Individuals in focus groups done as part of the Harvard survey made similar points. "I voted in 2008 for the same reason that Ashley did, because he was black," said one young person in Detroit who voted in 2008 but wasn't likely to do so in 2012. Said another: "It was really exciting and it was like, this is a change, this is something different. This is history being made."
I'm constantly told that I'm part of a spoiled generation; we had cell phones before we had braces and won trophies for just finishing. Many of us were spoiled because the first election in which we voted was truly historic. We drank up the exhilaration of hope and change and history.
That was four years ago. This year, we're hungover and don't really feel like getting out of bed. Voting in 2012 is not going to be as "historically" rewarding as it was in 2008. Could the 2012 candidates have done more to motivate us and make us think otherwise? Maybe. Or maybe not: I long ago stopped paying attention to the e-mails and tweets and Facebook posts from the campaigns.
If anything, our Obama hangovers are the result of thinking too much about history and not enough about politics. We patted ourselves on the backs for electing a president who looked different from any that came before him. But we forgot to realize that the political system -- and economy -- would look the same on Jan. 21, 2009 as it did on Jan. 20, 2009. We elected a celebrity. We got the 44th president.
History does not work in neat four-year cycles. But U.S. politics does. And on Tuesday, it's time to vote.
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.