Indiana University professor Gerald Wright opened his class on congressional elections by asking students if they saw the previous night’s school-sponsored U.S. House candidate debate a few blocks from campus.
Among almost 60 students, three hands went up.
“Most students don’t care about elections in general,” 20-year-old sophomore Melody Mostow said after the class last week. “In most midterm elections, there’s not that central person for us to rally around.”
The thrill is gone for many voters under age 30 who turned out in 2008 to vote for President Barack Obama by a 2-1 nationwide margin. That support represented the biggest schism between young and older voters in a presidential election since exit polling began in 1972, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington.
This year, fewer than three in 10 voters under age 30 say they will definitely cast ballots in the Nov. 2 congressional elections, down from 36 percent 11 months ago, according to a poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics released Oct. 21.
That’s disheartening for Democrats like Representative Baron Hill in southeast Indiana. His race may hinge on support from younger voters on a sprawling, hilly campus of old stone halls who helped swell his 2008 victory margin to 58 percent. It was his biggest win ever in a district that voted Republican in the previous three presidential elections and includes the 42,000-student university in Bloomington.
Mostow, from Pittsburgh, is volunteering for Democrats and voted by absentee ballot. She said she’s an exception and that most students aren’t sure how the elections will affect them.
“I’m trying to follow the election a little bit, but I’m not really motivated,” said Chris Williams, 22, who voted for Obama and Hill in 2008. “I don’t really like any of the candidates.”
Williams said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll support Hill or vote at all. Two years ago Obama created a sense he cared about young people, said Williams, who graduated and now works at the campus bookstore. “There’s not that kind of excitement this time.”
Students “have really full lives” with classes, jobs and other activities, said political science professor Wright. “To try to carve out much more time for politics really takes something special, and it happened in 2008 for a lot of them.”
Voters age 18 to 29 have been Democrats’ biggest backers among any age group in the past three national elections. They gave 54 percent support to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and 60 percent to congressional Democrats in 2006, when anger over the Iraq war and Republican President George W. Bush’s policies gave Democrats control of Congress.
The share of voters under age 30 who say they are giving a lot of thought to this year’s election dropped to 31 percent from 39 percent in 2006, according to a September Pew poll.
Enthusiasm for the Democratic Party also is slipping. While 56 percent of young voters this year say they are Democrats or leaning that way, that’s down from 62 percent in 2008, according to polling by Pew. Republican affiliation rose 6 points to 36 percent.
On top of that, Obama’s job approval rating has dipped to 49 percent among young voters from 58 percent in November 2009, according to the Harvard poll.
‘Discouraged With Politics’
“The generation that in 2008 proudly made the difference as caucus-goers in snowy Iowa for Senator Barack Obama tell us less than three years later that they are so discouraged with politics that they may sit this one out,” the Harvard poll concluded.
No one expects young voters’ enthusiasm to come close to the 2008 level. That “was astronomical and it had to come back to earth,” said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a research institute on youth voting at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
The race for Hill’s seat is one of three in Indiana targeted by Republicans trying to recapture the House. The 57-year-old former all-state high school basketball player and member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame is being challenged by Republican Todd Young, 38, a prosecutor and former Marine.
Asked after his Oct. 18 Bloomington debate against Young whether he was concerned about a lack of enthusiasm among college students, Hill said he has young people making phone calls every night.
“I’m overwhelmed by the support I’m getting,” said Hill, who was first elected to Congress in 1998.
Among those supporters is Laura Carlson, 21, a senior who spends 10 to 15 hours a week making phone calls and knocking on doors to remind Democrats to vote. She said it would be a “huge loss” if Obama’s party can’t keep control in Congress.
“This election is just as important as 2008,” she said as she canvassed a student neighborhood. “My parents want me to get a job, but I feel the need to be doing this.”
Getting younger voters to cast ballots on Election Day has never been easy. Turnout among those under age 30 was 51 percent for the presidential election in 2008. Sixty-seven percent of those over 30 voted.
Participation drops off in midterm elections. Just 25 percent of young people cast ballots in 2006, compared with 54 percent of older people, according to figures from CIRCLE.
Focusing on Grades
“I’d rather be spending time focusing on my grades,” said Jenna Fumo, 20, who voted for Obama and plans to sit out this election.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Obama has held rallies at the University of Wisconsin and Ohio State University and hosted a televised town-hall meeting on cable channels MTV, BET and CMT.
Organizing for America, Obama’s political arm outside the White House, has “campus captains” in 22 states to help coordinate canvassing and voter registration. In the past five months, volunteers have made about 2 million calls or visits to young voters, said spokeswoman Lynda Tran.
Meanwhile, young Republicans sense opportunity. The College Republican National Committee has recruited more than 25,000 members in five competitive states, said Rob Lockwood, the group’s spokesman. “We’re the ones who are enthused.”
Justin Kingsolver, 20, president of the College Republicans at Indiana University, said that while most students “don’t even know there’s an election,” a record 160 people attended his group’s first meeting this school year.
College Republicans are looking to return to times when young voters were in their camp. President Ronald Reagan won 59 percent of young voters in his 1984 bid for a second term.
“Reagan was the last Republican candidate who knew how to capture younger voters,” Kingsolver said. “If we could have another Reagan, oh my goodness.”