Shelby Emmett, 26, of Charles Village, is reluctantly backing Gingrich, since Herman Cain dropped out of the race. She says she likes Gingrich's frank talk about the economy and social security. But she's not so sure her candidate can pull young voters away from Obama.
"He's wasn't my first choice," she said. "But he's not holding back and he's not politically correct. … No, I don't think a lot of young people will go for him. A lot of young people are naïve."
Questions to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign about attempts to mobilize youth voters went unanswered.
Youth enthusiasm at a low
The youth vote isn't just down among Democrats.
There are now about 400 fewer registered young Republicans since mid-2010 in Maryland, and the youth vote during the early GOP primaries wasn't exactly impressive. Turnout in New Hampshire was only 15 percent of young voters. In Iowa, before that, the youth turnout was only 4 percent. In South Carolina's primary, 8 percent of young voters turned out to the polls.
Among young voters, in each of those states, Texas Rep. Ron Paul was victorious.
Investment analyst Mayur Thaker, 26, of Gaithersburg, was a self-described "big supporter" of Obama last election, but says the president's support of bailouts for rich bankers and campaign contributors turned him off. He traveled to Iowa to help get out the vote for his new candidate.
"I thought he was a true progressive in terms of civil liberties and peace," says Thaker, who now backs Paul. "I basically became disillusioned."
Rob "Biko" Baker is the executive director of the League of Young Voters, a non-partisan organization that helps mobilize young voters in cities with large minority populations in battleground states. He says he admires a lot of what the Paul campaign is doing.
"A lot of people are cynical about the political process. We're not," he says. "We believe a lot of important stuff goes on that young people can influence. People call young people apathetic, but if you look at both sides of the aisle you see young people involved. You see young white people getting involved in Ron Paul's campaign. On the Democratic, progressive side, Occupy is a young person's movement. There's a new breed of activist out here that's young and more sophisticated."
Baker's group helped get many Obama voters to the polls in 2008, he says, and believes it's a mistake for politicians to write off young voters.
"Ron Paul is kicking ass in these early states because young people are motivated to work for him," Baker says. "People don't understand the strategicness of young people. Just by turning out we can change the election."
He says if the economy doesn't improve, and the jobless rate go down, Obama could be in trouble.
"I'm really seeing the frustration in the people that just last year would have turned out," he says. "It's a scary prospect that people aren't going to have a job in future years. It's hard out here."
Levine says there are two categories of people who have left the Obama camp: liberal voters and non-ideological voters who simply wanted change.
"The first group doesn't think Obama has fought enough for the things they wanted," such as global warming, a single-payer health care system and ending the war in Afghanistan, Levine said. "The second group voted for a change and they've been disappointed about the pace of change. They might consider voting Republican."
Levine says the Obama campaign can reignite the youth vote if it follows the plan that worked in 2008: Directly appeal to young voters, give them unscripted positions of responsibility in the campaign, and promote a message of inclusiveness and tolerance on social issues.
"Just asking young people to vote. That works," Levine says. "If you're doing canvassing, target young people. There's a good return on investment. Obama understood that in '08."
Johns Hopkins political scientist Lester Spence says he believes some disaffected white voters could vote Republican, but young black voters will either vote for the president or stay home.
To reinvigorate the youth vote, Obama should focus on ways to make America's economic system a place where economic climbing is possible through hard work, he said.
"He needs to take the energy that the Occupy folks revealed not just for symbolic change but to make America the kind of place where a working-class kid can raise themselves up," Spence says. "It's not that place anymore."
Obama campaign spokesman Frank Benenati says he believes the youth vote will turn out for the president again, once they take a look at his record of accomplishments, including ending the Iraq war, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and expanding health care coverage.
"His accomplishments and his vision for the future of our country — where everyone gets a fair shake and are given the tools to succeed — stand in stark contrast with Republicans," Benenati says. "Just as young people came out in huge numbers to organize and lead a movement together in 2008, their energy will help build this campaign again in 2012."
For Fennell, that young people turn out is essential.
"We have to start off young and get involved," she says. "It's the best thing for people my age. We're going to be the ones running this country next."