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.”