HARRISONBURG, Va. — Things in abundance on the campus of James Madison University: hooded sweatshirts, Greek letters, stress about midterms. Noticeably absent: a whole lot of buzz or anticipation about the presidential election.
Four years ago, young voters helped President Obama's campaign redraw the electoral map on its way to a decisive victory. If all under-30 voters had stayed home in 2008, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, all historically red states, would have remained in the Republican column. He didn’t necessarily need those states to get to the White House then, but he sure could use them now.
That year, voters ages 18 to 29 posted the third-highest turnout on record for young voters since the minimum age was lowered to 18 in 1972. And they favored Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain by a ratio of 2-to-1, a more lopsided result than for any presidential candidate in the last 30 years. The busy hubs of young-voter activity often were college campuses, where in states like North Carolina and Virginia, the atmosphere was electrified by the states' new status as battlegrounds and the chance that young voters to change history.
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But four years later, not only are college voters less excited about Obama; there’s a deeper and broader disenchantment arising from the economic battering that they and their families took during the recession, the negative tenor of politics, and the paralysis in Washington.
“It’s a very different world that these 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds have grown up with, with hyper-partisanship in Washington and the Great Recession, where they’re seeing their friends and family members lose their jobs—if they’re lucky. Some have lost homes,” says John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Institute of Politics. “Their views of politics have been shaped more by that than the foreign-policy decisions made in the first part of the decade.”
All of that feeds into an alarming new dynamic: a complete lack of faith among the country’s youngest voting-age citizens in the ability of any elected leader to effect change. And that’s not good news for either the candidates or the nation. As JMU junior Hannah Cranston put it, “I don’t think a shift in presidents is going to change much. I don’t think one man can make all that much of a difference.”
A recent poll commissioned by Harvard’s Institute of Politics underscores Cranston’s sentiments: Nearly three-quarters of young people say they are not politically active, and four in 10 say it doesn’t matter who is elected because Washington is broken. A quarter believe that neither candidate represents their views.
Kelley Galownia, a 20-year-old junior here at JMU, is befuddled and turned off by the unrelenting volley of misleading attacks and counterattacks by both campaigns. The widespread misinformation makes it hard to know either candidate’s positions, she says. “Most people our age feel that both of them are pretty confusing in their views because they’ve been saying things that have been proven false,” she says. “It’s very frustrating.”
The search for a leader who inspires confidence is particularly difficult given the circumstances in which these young voters grew up. The diehards who were enchanted by Obama’s 2008 message have long since graduated, and what they found in the workforce wasn’t pretty. Unemployment among 18-to-29-year-olds stands at a dismal 12 percent, according to the most recent numbers provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you count the 1.7 million young adults who have given up on looking for work, the figure would jump to 16.5 percent.
At this four-year public university nestled in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, undergraduates are well aware of the prospects they face when they go out into the world. They were teenagers when the economy cratered and it has lowered their expectations. “This is the first generation of college students that we’re aware that came of age in a recession,” said Ward Lee, JMU director of career services. “There’s a little bit more pessimism that they’ve learned to live with.”
The overwhelming sentiment among JMU students is that they will be holding their noses as they cast their votes, if they vote at all. Think of their conundrum like an episode of The Dating Game.
Bachelor No. 1 is the familiar face—the one they fell for hard last time around. But things didn’t turn out quite as well in that relationship as they might have hoped. Bachelor No. 1 seems to recognize his own failings, but is that enough to make up for his sizable lapses?
Bachelor No. 2 has been the guy in the wings. He’s a bit stiff, a bit awkward, and young people aren’t really sure whether they can really connect. He can be a little too old-school for their taste, and Bachelor No. 1 has done a pretty good hatchet job on his rep. But he’s hoping that he can win them over with assurances of his overall competence.
The trouble is, there are glaring incompatibilities with both of them—no matter where young voters are on the political spectrum.
Cranston, a 21-year-old English major, plans on voting either for Obama or a third party -- but don’t expect her to be euphoric about it. “I really like him as a person and I think that he’s as honorable of a politician as you’re going to get your hands on,” she says of the president, but “I honestly don’t want to vote for him.” Why not? “The unmanned drone strikes, the fact that once someone’s dead you can’t ask why they did what they did or what they did, or what their name was or what their face looked like,” she says. “That bothers me.”
Angela Pustizzi, a 20-year-old junior, is the daughter of a small-buiness owner in Milmay, N.J. She likes Romney’s message of getting government out of the way to unleash American’s enterprising spirit, and his emphasis on values like individualism and hard work. But on gay issues, Pustizzi’s views diverge drastically from Romney’s. The former Massachusetts governor opposes same-sex marriage, while Pustizzi says, “Love is love, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in. The world needs more love so why are you going to be picky about it?”
From abortion to gay rights, GOP stands on social issues also irk Logan Kendle, 22, of Alexandria, Va. “I don’t understand. It’s 2012,” he says. “Stop living like a Republican from the 1970s.” He voted for McCain last time but is now leaning toward Obama—“the lesser of two evils,” he says— because of his policies on energy and the environment.
Nineteen-year-old Oeuyown Kim sums up the feelings of her friends on campus like this: “There aren’t so many Obama supporters as there are people against Romney and vice versa.”
All that deflation isn’t for a lack of effort from both campaigns.
Obama makes frequent stops at college campuses, trying to reignite some of the old magic. He touts his expansion of student loans and grants and a measure that froze student loan interest rates at their current levels. He appeared on MTV and his campaign released an ad that features Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls, talking about her “first time.” Voting, that is. Also working in Obama’s favor are his executive order to halt the deportation of some young people brought into the United States illegally as children, and his endorsement of gay marriage earlier this year.
The good news for Obama is he led Romney 55 percent to 39 percent in the Harvard survey. The bad news: Only 48 percent in that age group said they would “definitely” vote.
The Harrisonburg branch of Organizing for America manned a voter registration table from morning until dusk one crisp fall day on campus, and volunteers said they planned to be active right up until Election Day. The College Republicans were nowhere to be found, although a few days later Tagg Romney, one of Mitt’s sons, stopped by James Madison and registered voters out of the Romney bus.
But even a well-oiled organizational effort and popular social policies can’t neutralize the impact of the economic challenges facing this cohort. One of Paul Ryan’s most memorable lines at the Republican National Convention told of college graduates “in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
Romney has sounded similar refrains on the stump. “Any parent who has worked hard to help their child go to school and go on to college, expected that when their son or daughter came out of college they’d get a great job,” he said at a stop in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. “And to find last graduation day that half the kids coming out of college couldn’t find work, or work that was full-time work, or work that was consistent with a college degree, that broke a lot of hearts.”
It’s unclear how well Romney’s singular focus on the economy will play among young voters, who tend to feel more strongly about social issues than other age groups. The campaign has also been mostly silent about what policies under a Romney administration would help young Americans, except under the broad heading of “job creation.”
Still, Romney’s party is looking to young voters for an edge in states like Virginia that could go down to the wire on election night. Virginia Republican Party communications director Garren Shipley said the GOP, caught off-guard by the competitiveness of this state in 2008, is actively courting young voters while also working to deploy youthful volunteers throughout the state to win other converts. Young Americans for Romney holds at least 20 phone banks every week and the Virginia Republicans have a presence on 20 college campuses, Shipley said.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a massive youth turnout like we saw in 2008,” he said. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime wave election. But every college vote that we take away from President Obama helps Governor Romney, so we’re going to try to do that.”