Jan. 25: The young voter

As Obama tries to engage 20-somethings, Republicans see an opening

January 24, 2012|By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

DeJanee Fennell hears the excuses.

Young people are apathetic. Young people are sick of politics. Young people have given up.

The thing is: Fennell doesn't buy that.

The 20-year-old junior at Morgan State knows President Barack Obama needs the youth vote to win re-election in November, and she intends to help deliver that to him.

"I still believe in Barack Obama," she says. "I think he has my best interest at heart."

Compared with 2008, statements like Fennell's are growing increasingly rare. Across the country, voter registration among young people is down from a previous election high that helped deliver the presidency to Obama, when about two-thirds of young voters cast ballots for him. And support for the president has waned. A December survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics showed Obama's approval rating at a low among voters under 30, down 12 percentage points over the past two years.

It's a crucial time for those who seek to capture the youth vote, experts say. The Obama campaign is redoubling its efforts to lure young voters, enlisting people like Fennell, while GOP candidates see an opportunity to draw away some of Obama's 2008 supporters and improve on John McCain's historically poor showing among youth voters.

"There was enormous amount of hope in Obama in 2008," says Curtis Gans, the director for the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, who now sees a lower youth voter turnout as inevitable. "Essentially, you can have the best rhetoric in the world, but if you can't deliver, they won't turn out."

In the battleground state of North Carolina, Democrats have lost nearly 40,000 registered voters between the ages of 18 and 25 since 2008, according to a study compiled by the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In another competitive state, Nevada, Democrats lost an additional 25,000 registered young voters.

The drop could prove a "major difficulty" for Obama's re-election campaign, the study concluded.

Even in Maryland — with its overwhelmingly Democratic-minded population — the number of registered Democrats between the ages of 18 and 25 has dropped by more than 8,000 since June of 2010.

With polls showing Obama in a close race with a potential Republican nominee — and some showing him losing to certain candidates — the Obama campaign, nationally, has recognized the need to re-energize the youth vote. That's where Fennell, and people like her across the country, come in.

A political science major, Fennell and her friends volunteer for the president, and try to energize voters who would rather stay home from the polls. She says they try to reach people door-to-door, but also through Facebook and Twitter.

"We go out there and we try to target our local communities," she said. "Once you give the message to someone, they can give the message to someone else."

GOP opportunity

At the same time that low youth-registration statistics present a warning call for Democrats, the voting bloc presents an opportunity for Republicans. In 2008, GOP nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona performed historically poorly among young voters, receiving only about one-third of the youth vote.

"McCain only got 32 percent of young voters: That's an all-time record low," says Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE. "There's room for Republicans to make some inroads. Young people in this era are good at organizing themselves around identity. Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. I can see Mitt Romney getting broader young support if he campaigns to them."

Romney supporter Dave Meyers, 22, of Ellicott City, says he doesn't think his candidate can capture more of the youth vote than Obama, but knows Romney can do better than McCain. He says the Republican party should focus more on fiscal issues if leaders want to capture more of the youth vote.

"People my age don't care about social issues or are on the other side of them," he says." But I know plenty of people who graduated from college who can't get a job. They went to vote for Obama trying to change all that. Now they're saying, 'This isn't what we wanted.'"

Meyers recently traveled to New Hampshire, where Romney won the GOP primary vote.

"I saw a lot more young people than I thought working for his campaign," he said. "What will really help him is there are a lot of young people disaffected with everything that's going on in politics. They'll be ready to try something else."

After a victory in the GOP primary in South Carolina, former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich has emerged as a top challenger to Romney. But some experts, and even some of his young supporters, doubt their candidate can catch on among younger voters.

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