Obama Campus Fervor Losing to Apathy as Students Sour on 2012

Obama Campus Fervor Losing to Apathy as Students Sour on 2012
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama addresses a rally at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On election night 2008, freshman Meagan Cassidy left Lake Forest College and hopped a train to Chicago to celebrate Barack Obama’s impending victory.

“There was probably no better place to be,” Cassidy said in a phone interview. The excitement generated that evening spurred her on to become an intern and then a field organizer in three congressional contests and two human rights campaigns.

Now a senior, Cassidy, 21, said she’s not working on a campaign this time around. She’s too busy looking for a job at a nonprofit advocacy group. She and her friends aren’t discussing the election as much as in 2008, she said.

“There is not much talk of Obama at all,” Cassidy said of the mood on campus, which extends beyond the president. “I don’t think anyone’s satisfied.”

Obama enjoyed a wave of youth support in his run to the presidency, winning 66 percent of voters aged 18-to-29 in the race against Republican Senator John McCain. Twenty-two million young voters cast ballots, making up about 18 percent of the electorate -- two million more than in 2004, according to exit polls and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Today that passion has cooled amid gridlock and partisanship in Washington and a surge in unemployment that is souring young voters.

‘More Apathetic’

“There’s definitely a significant sense that this generation are more apathetic headed into the 2012 election than they were in 2008,” John Della Volpe, director of polling for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, said in a phone interview.

Obama’s approval rating among college students dropped to 46 percent last December from 58 percent in November 2009, according to a Harvard University poll. Fifty percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 said they would “definitely” be voting, an 11 percentage-point decrease from the fall of 2007. A third of respondents said they approved of Democrats in Congress, and 24 percent approved of Republicans. Just 12 percent said the nation was headed in the right direction

“The turnout will not be great,” Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, said in a phone interview. The war in Afghanistan, a lack of progress on closing Guantanamo Bay and a dismal job picture taint Obama’s prospects, he said. The unemployment rate among 18- to 24-year-olds was 16.3 percent at the end of last year, the highest since record-keeping began in 1948, according to a February Pew Research Center report.

“There’s not the sense that four more years of Obama will change the world for the better,” Gans said. Still, Obama stands a “reasonably good chance” of winning, he said.

Uncontested Race

Some of the apathy can be attributed to an uncontested Democratic race. In Obama’s 2008 primary battle, he and Hillary Clinton made appearances at dozens of college campuses to woo students. While the election is still more than seven months away, the president has time to recapture the mood that drew young people to him four years ago, Clo Ewing, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, said in a phone interview.

“We absolutely want to work toward doing as well, if not better, than we did in 2008,” Ewing said.

Support for Obama among young people, including students, may already be perking up, Della Volpe said. As of March 18, 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds approved of Obama, up from 44 percent in early December, according to a Gallup poll. The national average was 48 percent. The poll didn’t separate out students.

Silent Students

In 2008, students at Dartmouth College sported Obama bumper stickers on their laptops and advocated their support over the Internet, Dean Lacy, professor of government at the Hanover, New Hampshire-based school, said in a phone interview.

“Every class I walked into, the students would be talking about the election,” Lacy said. “This year I could barely get students to talk about the Republican primaries, even in a class on campaigns and elections.”

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has appeared at a dozen campuses so far, where the campaign contacts local college Republicans to make calls on behalf of the candidate and spread his “pro-jobs message,” Andrea Saul, a campaign spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

Obama outpaced McCain in his use of social media in 2008. The College Republican National Committee is beefing up its social-media presence, Alyssa Farah, the committee’s communications director, said in a phone interview. The group has made inroads on Twitter, where they have 33,551 followers compared with the College Democrats’ 23,969 and Young Democrats’ 7,538 supporters.

Libertarian Streak

Texas Republican Representative Ron Paul has also generated excitement among younger voters, tapping into “an increasing libertarian streak” among students, Harvard’s Della Volpe said. Paul has run strongest among Republican primary voters ages 18-to-29, according to CNN exit polls, and won the group outright in the South Carolina and Michigan primaries.

To lay the groundwork for the fall campaign, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and national field director Jeremy Bird are visiting campuses in swing states including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Florida to meet with students. The campaign hasn’t determined how often Obama or Vice President Joe Biden will visit campuses, Ewing said

“What happened in 2008 was a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and young people are a little bit slower coming back,” Emily Tisch Sussman, executive director of the Young Democrats of America in Washington, said in a phone interview.

While college students say they are disillusioned with Washington, almost 60 percent of those polled in the Harvard survey volunteered in their community, Della Volpe said.

A Better Place

“They care about the country,” Della Volpe said. “They want to make the community a better place. They just don’t think the system in Washington is the most effective way to do that.”

Lange Luntao, a Harvard senior, traveled to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to work door-to-door for Obama in 2008. He dropped his involvement in the campus Democratic organization after what he called the “brutal” 2010 midterm elections when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives.

“I am still on their mailing list, but I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time,” Luntao said. Instead he focuses his energy on environmental issues.

In North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008, thousands of students descended on the main campus drive at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to celebrate election night, Anthony Dent, a senior economics and English major, said in a phone interview.

Dip in Enthusiasm

“If you talk to the people who were out on Franklin Street, in the rain, shouting screaming, overjoyed at what just happened, they bought a lot into his whole idea of fundamentally changing Washington,” said Dent, a former leader of the school’s campus Republicans. He said he notices a significant dip in enthusiasm on campus now.

Austin Gilmore, president of the college Democrats at UNC, agreed. On election night in 2008, Gilmore, then 17, and a friend marched into a McDonald’s restaurant in downtown Raleigh.

“We had Obama t-shirts as well as a couple homemade signs,” Gilmore said. “People were just spontaneously clapping for us, which was great.” Now, Gilmore says, he wears his Obama shirt for gym workouts.

The election “isn’t on a lot of people’s radar,” Gilmore said, adding that he believes support for Obama will increase once the Republicans have chosen their candidate and the general election campaign begins.

“Obama came in with so many big ideas and big promises and this mantra of hope and change and something new,” Gilmore said. “I was more excited in 2008, but I was also very much naive about how politics work.”

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