WASHINGTON — The love affair between young voters and President Barack Obama that ignited his candidacy in 2008 and powered him to the White House seems like a distant memory in 2012.
As Election Day approaches, there’s an enthusiasm gap among young voters. New polling from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that just 48 percent of voters under age 30 say they’ll definitely vote in November. Four years ago that figure was much higher, at 72 percent, according to a Pew Research Center study at the time.
Absent the national anger over the Iraq War and the sense of history that came from electing the nation’s first African-American president in 2008, young voters can’t seem to find their motivation this time.
“When I talk to young people who aren’t as passionate, who aren’t as enthusiastic about the November election, they talk about it in those terms,” said John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard’s politics institute. “2008 was an historical event. They needed to participate, even if politics wasn’t important to them, to say that they were there, that they had a hand in changing the course of America. It’s kind of like our parents, perhaps, saying they were at Woodstock in 1969.”
After securing the Democratic nomination four years ago, Obama won two out of three general election voters ages 18-29. That strong support helped him flip North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia from red to blue.
“Those three states in particular, if not for the margin he ran up in the youth vote, he loses,” Della Volpe said.
But recent polling by the Pew Research Center found that only half of voters under 30 are even certain they’re registered to vote this year. That’s the lowest percentage in 16 years. And just 61 percent are highly engaged in the 2012 elections, compared with 75 percent at the same time in 2008.
With the exception of some recent college campus speaking events, neither Obama nor Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has focused much attention on young voters, said Heather Smith, the president of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan group set up to mobilize the political power of young voters.
“If you register young people so they can vote and you engage them in a conversation on their issues and you ask them to show up, they respond,” she said. “It’s just that there has been a lot less of that leading up to the elections than there was four years ago.”
Part of the problem is that the anti-war and environmental themes that excited young people in 2008 have given way to concerns about Medicare, tax policy and health care, which have never been high priorities for twentysomething voters.
“There’s just so much focus on programs that deal with older citizens,” said Olivia Adams, a 20-year-old sophomore at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “Even the stuff about the economy is really focused more on people who (have) full-time jobs, not people who are in school who’ll have jobs in the future.”
Campus enthusiasm for the president has been noticeably absent.
“In the last election, students seemed to be the foundation of his campaign,” Adams said. “And this year, honestly, I haven’t seen anything on campus.”
That could be trouble for Democrats, who’ve won young voters by significant margins over Republicans since 2004, according to CIRCLE, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, at Tufts University near Boston.
While voters overall favored Republican candidates for the House of Representatives by 52 percent to 45 percent in 2010, those under age 30 favored Democrats by 55-42 percent, according to the National Election Pool 2010 exit poll.
That trend continues with Obama leading Romney by 19 points among likely voters under age 30, according to the Harvard poll. But it also found that young Romney supporters are 10 percent more likely than young Obama supporters to say they’ll definitely vote next month.
“When young voters voted for Barack Obama in 2008, they didn’t think ‘hope’ would mean ‘hope to move out of my parents’ basement,’ ” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. “Half of recent college graduates can’t even find work and realize it’s going to take a new president to get this economy going again.”
Obama supporters admit that the dynamics of the election are vastly different from those in 2008, when the Democratic primary campaign lasted 18 months, giving young voters more time to register and to kick the tires on each candidate.
But Obama campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing said they measured “support and enthusiasm by what we’re seeing on the ground: with our volunteers, our large voter-registration advantage and an unrivaled grass-roots organization.”
In 2008, young African-Americans had the highest turnout rate of any youth demographic group since 1972, CIRCLE reported. The trend continued in 2010, when young blacks voted at a rate of 27.5 percent, compared with 25 percent for young whites and roughly 18 percent for young Hispanics and Asian-Americans, according to a CIRCLE analysis of census data.
This year, the Harvard survey found that young African-Americans are – again – more likely to vote than whites and Hispanics are.
With Pell grants, student loans and interest rates on his mind, 21-year-old Anre Washington is typical of black millennial voters – teens and twentysomethings – who are closely following the presidential election. A senior sociology major at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Washington helps register voters on campus and is eager to cast his first presidential vote.
Recently, he organized a presidential debate-watching event that drew more than 200 students at the historically black university.
“It was so quiet in there you could hear a pin drop,” Washington said of the rapt audience. “People were holding on to every word.”
But voting takes a back seat to survival in many U.S. neighborhoods; including those not far from the Morehouse campus, where youth unemployment is high and people struggle in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
An estimated 42 percent of young people nationally didn’t finish high school or failed to continue their education after graduation, CIRCLE found. In 2010, these young people were roughly half as likely to vote as those with some college experience.
That disengagement is why Rob “Biko” Baker, the executive director of the League of Young Voters, held a youth voter-awareness event in Atlanta recently, after similar events in other big cities, as part of the league’s national “Ignite 2012” campaign. They drew an eclectic array of urban artists, activists and celebrities to discuss the importance of young people voting and taking leadership roles in their communities.
“We’re engaging a demographic that no one’s touching,” Baker said. “If you want people to pay attention to the election while they’re struggling to make it and you haven’t reached out to them, then you can’t blame that on the consumer.”
Eighteen- to 29-year-olds typically have the lowest voter-turnout rate of all age groups, yet voting at a young age is crucial to becoming consistent voters later in life. But politics can be intimidating for young people who haven’t participated before.
To make politics more accessible – and lighten things up – thousands of young people in 84 cities in 32 states will don costumes and go door-to-door on Halloween urging residents to vote as part of the national “Trick or Vote” event, sponsored by the Bus Federation, a nonpartisan youth organization based in Portland, Ore.
Participants, who typically range in age from 16 to 30, hope to reach 100,000 households, federation executive director Matt Singer said. The group also has done voter-registration efforts on skates, dressed as pink bunnies and even in robot costumes, all with the idea of making politics more approachable for young people.
“Politics is like a party,” Singer said. “And if you don’t invite people to the party, you shouldn’t be shocked when they don’t show up. We need to invite more people to the party.”