FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Annie Hartnett was not old enough to vote in 2008 when she volunteered for the Obama campaign at the University of Iowa, where an older sister was a student. Now 21 and a leader of the Iowa State University Democrats, she said she was as excited as four years ago to be working for President Obama — yet she struggled to describe something that is missing.
“I would still say there’s as much excitement as before, but in 2008, well, there was much more of a `This is a new fresh start,“’ Hartnett said. “When you’re voting for an incumbent, it’s not really a fresh start, right?”
And enlisting other volunteers is less easy: “In ‘08, I feel like people were way more, like, wanting to get behind it because it was new, there was a drive, energy.”
So on Saturday she was heartened as students waited in lines for two hours for tickets to see Obama on Tuesday as he made the rounds of college campuses in an aggressive appeal for young voters even as Mitt Romney was being celebrated in Tampa.
Each party used to keep a low profile during the other’s presidential convention week. But Obama, trying to expand his support among a crucial demographic group that tends to go to vote at lower rates than older Americans, was not standing down.
“I’m counting on you,” the president shouted to an estimated 6,000 mostly young people gathered outdoors at Iowa State, in Ames. “Those who oppose change, those who benefit from the status quo, they’ve always bet on cynicism, they always bet on complacency. But throughout America’s history, they have lost that bet. And they’re going to lose it this time, too.”
“I’m asking you one more time to do what we did, to do what young people all across the state of Iowa did four years ago,” Obama added.
From Iowa State, Obama went to Colorado State University for a rally Tuesday evening before heading back East on Wednesday to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That itinerary of three colleges in three swing states, just as students are returning, speaks to the importance of young voters to Obama’s prospects, and to his advisers’ concern about their level of engagement.
“I do think that they must be aware that there has been a real decline with younger voters and that there isn’t nearly the same amount of support for Obama and Democrats as there was four years ago,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.
“What’s driving the decline,” she added, “is really the economy, the economic experience that young people are having.”
While Gallup’s recent daily tracking polls show that 58 percent of voters under 30 currently support Obama, that is lower than he got in 2008, according to exit polls.
Then, 18 percent of those who voted were under 30 — just one percentage point more than in recent elections, contrary to the widespread belief that young voters made up a record proportion of the electorate. But they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, 66 percent compared with 32 percent for McCain, a 34-point margin that was nearly double the point spread between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996.
Now the under-30 ranks include more than 15 million Americans who like Hartnett can vote for the first time. Yet unlike the atmosphere of hope and change that defined 2008, those newly eligible to vote have come of age in the worst economic downturn since the Depression. With a college diploma or, worse, without one, they enter an unwelcoming job market.
That backdrop and Obama’s role this time as the battle-scarred incumbent give encouragement to the Romney campaign.
“You can only run on hope and change once,” said Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director.
He conceded Obama’s advantage among young voters, then added, “We’re not going to win them, but we’re going to eat into the margins. And those are the margins where they need to run up the score.”
The Obama campaign is scrambling to do just that, especially on campuses in the dozen or so battleground states, sending student-volunteers out to promote Obama’s work to increase Pell grants, limit interest rates on federal college loans and enact a health care law allowing people to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26. Other issues, like his support for abortion rights, contraception coverage and same-sex marriage, also are more popular with younger Americans than any other age group.
Obama himself has pitched that record in 25 campus events this year, including four each in the battlegrounds Ohio and Florida. Aides say the number will increase in coming weeks. Michael Belding, 22, a graduate student at Iowa State, was a freshman there in 2008; while he voted for McCain, he recalled the pro-Obama electricity on campus then and the “fun” of the election night celebrations.
Now head of the student newspaper’s opinion page, Belding said, “I don’t hear as much about students getting involved in either campaign.”
Obama campaign aides say it is early; young people, like most Americans, are just now starting to tune in.
“The people are slowly getting excited,” said William J. Russell, Democratic Party chairman of Larimer County, which includes Colorado State.
“We’re having a lot of success,” said Derek Ketner, 24, a junior who has been registering students to vote on the central plaza. “But,” he added, “It’s definitely going to be a challenge to try and get some voters who may have been turned off because they didn’t really understand the impact or how deep this recession under President Bush was.”
Obama drew 45,000 people at Colorado State right before the 2008 election. The police estimated Tuesday’s turnout at 13,000, one of the president’s biggest crowds to date, though the campaign limits tickets so he can better connect with his audience, advisers say. In interviews, a number of students, including self-described conservatives, said they remained undecided about Obama but do not like Romney.
The campaign has dispatched celebrities popular with young people to mobilize support. The actors Kal Penn and John Cho, stars of the “Harold & Kumar” comedy films, last week kicked off a competition between Colorado State and the University of Colorado in Boulder — “GottaRegister Rocky Mountain Rumble” — to see which university can register the most new voters.
Penn, who said he had campaigned in 16 states, drew about 200 students last week on a campus serving several colleges in downtown Denver, and urged them to make sure they voted.
“It does matter very much,” he said.