Landscape has changed for young Obama voters
The youngest delegate from Pennsylvania, Alaysha Clairborne, 18, of York County, (in pink shirt at lower right). Members of the Pennsylvania Delegation wait to cast their vote to nominate Barack Obama for President of the United States on day two of the Democratic National Convention.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Andrew Heffner ran Barack Obama's Homewood field office in 2008 and, like many young people, had the experience of a lifetime campaigning for the first African-American with a shot at winning the presidency.
He worked tirelessly organizing phone banks, knocking on doors and recruiting young volunteers, some of whom seemed always to be at the campaign office.
Now Mr. Heffner is four years older. He's a husband now and a career man with responsibilities he hadn't had at age 26. With two jobs, he hasn't the time or energy for politicking that he did four years ago.
President Barack Obama is different now, too.
"He's no longer the rock star. He's not new. He's not the new hip thing. He's been around now," said Frederick Lynch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Polls consistently show that a majority of young voters still support Mr. Obama. The bad news for Democrats is that, like Mr. Heffner, they're less engaged this year. They might not show up at the polls.
In 2008, young people were looking to make history by electing the first black president, a man who ran a vigorous primary against the first woman presidential candidate. This time there are no firsts.
"It doesn't have the same newness," Mr. Heffner said in a recent telephone interview. "People were talking about what this would mean to them. Folks would tell us over and over that they never thought this would happen. The story is very captivating when you've lived all your life assuming only white people would be president." So far, Mr. Heffner hasn't been involved in Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, although he plans to volunteer a bit during the run-up to the election.
His challenges are the same as a lot of other members of the 2008 Obama youth brigade who are struggling to find jobs or working harder to make ends meet than they were four years ago.
"The nature of a couple of years of recession -- particularly for youth -- is that so many folks have had no job or a job they hate or five jobs they hate. They're kind of exhausted in one way or another," Mr. Heffner said. "I don't think it's necessarily fair to put all that on a national candidate or a president, but that's what we do."
Incumbents typically find it hard to match the excitement of their first presidential campaigns, but the problem seems to be magnified for Mr. Obama, said Sean D. Foreman, a Westmoreland County native who now is an associate professor of political science at Barry University in Florida.
"There was something special about the 2008 Obama campaign where a high level of enthusiasm swept the interest of young voters. It is hard to re-create that," he said in a telephone interview.
During a press conference in Charlotte this week, party youth leaders deflected reporters' questions about waning youth enthusiasm.
Young Democrats still are trying to engage their contemporaries in the campaign, said Rod Snyder, national president of Young Democrats of America.
"It's a different campaign this year so the tactics are different but, quite frankly, we are still seeing a lot of the same ground game when it comes to outreach," he said.
Alejandra Salinas, 22, of Laredo, Texas, national president of College Democrats of America, agreed. On Thursday she told delegates in a speech, "Four years ago on campuses all across this country, young people rose up to change the course of American history. In record numbers we came together and finally elected a president who understands our struggles, shares our dreams and believes in our future. Some people say young people aren't excited about this election, that it isn't about us. But decisions made over the next four years will affect us more than anyone."
Youth "are just as energized and just as ready to make a difference as we were in 2008," she said.
Young Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to replicate the energy their Democratic counterparts showed in 2008.
"President Obama did run an unprecedented campaign, talking to young voters and using media," said Lisa Stickan, chairwoman of the Young Republican National Federation, during a forum last week at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. Mr. Obama set the bar higher than he could jump, leaving his supporters disappointed and unenthusiastic this election, said Ms. Stickan of Highland Heights, Ohio.
"When you promise the sun and the stars, it's difficult to deliver on that," she said. "These young voters could go two ways: they could say they'll sit this one out" or they could feel so angry that they'll vote Republican. Mr. Obama captured 66 percent of the youth vote in 2008. That made for the largest disparity between voters under 30 and other age groups since exit polling began, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
Still, the outcome in 2008 would have been the same even without the youngest voters. According Pew, the president would have lost Indiana and North Carolina but won Ohio and Florida, which carry more electoral votes.
With pollsters predicting a close race, every vote counts, and the Obama campaign doesn't want to miss the chance to court a single young adult. Polls consistently show that voters under 30 are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, so the Obama campaign's biggest challenge is to turn out the college vote rather than to sway it.
Campaign operatives are working hard to do that on campuses nationwide, including the University of Pittsburgh.
Lara Sullivan, president of Pitt College Democrats, worked hard last month to organize political phone banks and a voter registration drive to coincide with students' return to campus last week, and to reach out to incoming freshmen who contacted the Obama campaign offices looking for volunteer opportunities in Pittsburgh.
"It's a little bit of a difference than in 2008," said Ms. Sullivan, who volunteered for Mr. Obama's first campaign even though she was still in high school and unable to vote. Then, she said, young Democrats were focused on a history-making moment.
In 2012 the campaign is about issues more than personalities. Health care, reproductive rights and student loan rates are among those most important to students, Ms. Sullivan said in a telephone interview.
"Students definitely recognize that there are really important issues that are being brought out this election cycle and they want to have their voices heard," she said.
Volunteers on other campuses nationwide also have been gearing up for voter registration drives as students arrive for the fall semester.
Re-energizing a base that was so electrified during the 2008 campaign won't be easy for the campaign, said Michael Federici, chairman of the political science department at Mercyhurst University in Erie.
Waning enthusiasm isn't an unusual problem for incumbents, but for Mr. Obama it was amplified by his meteoric rise from a virtually unknown state senator to president in less than five years.
"Four years ago he said he could change everything -- that he could change the world -- and we looked into his eyes and we believed him. He had this magical quality about him, but now people don't like the compromises he's made and he really hasn't made everything better," Mr. Federici said.
Young Democrats who were heavily engaged in the 2008 campaign are taking for granted that the president will be re-elected, said Sabrina McLaughlin, a Pennsylvania Young Democrats board member who ran a campaign field office in Carbon County four years ago.
"It just feels different now. People are like, 'I'm so busy.' People take for granted that he'll get re-elected, and they don't feel it's urgent that they have to come back for another go-around," said Ms. McLaughlin, 30, of Philadelphia.
The campaign knows it has to work harder to energize young voters this time and has been targeting college voters for months.
Mr. Obama kicked off his campaign with back-to-back rallies this summer at Ohio State University and Virginia Commonwealth University.
He traveled the country promising to prevent a student loan hike that would have taken effect in July. He kept his promise to bring troops home. He made it possible for them to stay on their parents' health insurance plans longer. And he upped his coolness factor by endorsing same-sex marriage.
All that may not be enough.
"In 2008, Obama was running as an agent of change in a country fighting two land wars in Asia and suffering from massive economic upheaval and stagnation at once," said John McNulty, assistant professor of political science at Binghamton University in New York.
"Now he's running as an incumbent, the economy is worse, and we're still mired in Afghanistan, enmeshed with a feckless Pakistan, and on the verge of a showdown with Iran."
First Published September 7, 2012 12:00 am