ELMHURST, Illinois (AP) — What a difference four years can make. In 2008, college campuses in the U.S. were filled with campaign posters and political rallies — and frenzy. Remember “Obamamania?” This year, it’s difficult to find a student who’s truly excited about the presidential race.
“Politics has gone back to that thing you don’t want to bring up,” says Abraham Mulberry, a freshman at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago who’s trying to start a club for young Democrats.
Four years ago, emotions were high over the possibility of electing the country’s first black president.
In 2008, Mulberry’s campus had an active Students for Obama chapter. But this time, there’s nothing for either Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Instead, there are worries about the economy, which continues to be weak after crashing just a few months before Obama took office.
“Certainly, some (young people) have stopped believing,” says Molly Andolina, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago who tracks young voters. “Maybe that’s inevitable. For structural reasons, it’s easier to offer hope and change as a candidate, than as a president.”
Excitement was so high about making history in 2008, it really had nowhere to go but down, she says.
“For young voters, it was like going to Woodstock in 1968,” says John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
Now, like a lot of Americans, students are more worried about the economy and finding jobs, and they’re weary and cynical about political bickering in Washington.
“Lots of people thought President Obama could go in and break gridlock and that didn’t happen,” says Ethan Weber, a senior at Miami University in Ohio. “That’s the scariest thing to a lot of young people — that nothing is going to happen.”
In 2008, Weber cast a half-hearted vote for Republican John McCain, certain Obama would win. This time, he’s voting for Romney and sees the election as a close one.
He’s in the minority. Young people lean Democratic, and they favor Obama by a wide margin — though some pollsters say the youngest new voters are showing signs of change.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month found that 61 percent of registered voters in the 18-to-29 bracket support the president, compared with 30 percent for Romney.
In 2008, young people voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin, with just over half of citizens ages 18 to 29 casting a ballot.
It remains to be seen whether they’ll show up at the polls this time.
A Gallup poll taken Aug. 27-Sept. 16 found that 63 percent of registered voters, ages 18 to 29, said they “definitely” plan to vote. By comparison, before the election in 2008, 79 percent of young registered voters said they definitely planned to cast a ballot, according to a Time/Abt SRBI poll taken in late September of that year.
Allison Byers, a 25-year-old in San Francisco, finds young Americans’ waning commitment to vote in this election frustrating. But she concedes that she’s feeling more “realistic” than excited about this election.
It’s important to note, though, that a whole new crop of eligible voters — those who weren’t yet 18 in November 2008 — has arrived. While the young voters in 2008 came of age amid the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, “the political awakening of the younger millennials is happening during the recession,” Della Volpe says.
Della Volpe and his staff have found that Obama holds a wider margin of support among older twentysomethings than with potential voters who are 18 to 24 — especially 18- and 19-year-olds.
Republican Paul Ryan, who is framed as the “younger” vice presidential candidate, has spent time on campuses recently. That is “a very, very astute move” by Republicans, Della Volpe says.
Romney and Ryan won’t win the youth vote, he predicts. “But they might win the white 18- to 24-year-old vote — and they could block some additional gains that Obama might make.”
It means a lot depends on these next few weeks, especially since studies have shown that young voters are often late to engage in an election.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press