Young voters who were key to Barack Obama’s 2008 election as president aren’t as excited about his candidacy this year but still prefer him to Republican nominee Mitt Romney, according to a nationwide Hiram College poll of “Generation Y” voters released on Wednesday.
Half of the 18- to 29-year-olds polled by the college’s Garfield Institute for Public Leadership say they prefer Obama, compared with 37 percent who back the former Massachusetts governor. In 2008, exit polls indicated that 68 percent of voters in that age group supported Obama, while 29 percent favored Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain.
Political Scientist Jason Johnson, who heads the college’s year-long “Listening to Young Voters” project, says young voters are disappointed that Obama hasn’t solved nation’s problems over the past four years, but aren’t convinced that Romney will do any better.
He anticipates the lack of enthusiasm will depress that group’s high voter participation from 2008. The 22 million young voters who showed up at the polls that year represented the third highest turnout in that demographic since 1972, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, a Tufts University analysis found.
“Young people are not going to turn out with the same level of enthusiasm as they did in 2008,” says Johnson, whose poll of 600 registered voters conducted between June 5 and 12 had a 4 percent margin of error. “When they see these two options side by side, they are not thrilled.”
Youthful voters were key to Obama’s 2008 win. According to Harvard Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe, national crises such as the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan propelled increasing numbers of young voters to the polls over the past several elections. He says fewer are expected this time because they’ve become disillusioned as nagging problems persist.
Della Volpe, whose organization regularly surveys 18- to 29-year-old voters, says Obama still maintains strong support among African Americans, Hispanics and voters between ages 25 and 29. He lost ground among whites and is having trouble gaining support from 18- to 24-year-olds, many of whom were too young to vote in the 2008 election.
“Younger voters are more skeptical and conservative than the older members of that age group,” says Della Volpe.
American Enterprise Institute public opinion and demography specialist Karlyn Bowman says Obama’s efforts to appeal to younger voters by discussing student loans, appearing at colleges, and announcing a halt to deportations of some younger illegal immigrants “doesn’t seem to be moving the needle on enthusiasm.”
“The Obama team should be worried about the lack of high levels of enthusiasm,” says Bowman, who believes Obama needs to do particularly well among young voters, women and Hispanics to make up for his losses among other groups.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw says Obama’s efforts to end the war in Iraq, allow gays to serve in the military, make college more affordable, and allow people under age 26 to remain on their parents’ health insurance have shown he prioritizes young voters.
“Just as young people came out in huge numbers to organize and lead a movement in 2008, their energy and commitment will help build this campaign again in 2012,” said Kershaw.
Romney campaign spokesman Chris Maloney said that persistently high unemployment, particularly among young people, has made it impossible for Obama “to skate by on his rhetoric and promises as he did in 2008.”
“Mitt Romney has run a business, understands the economy and knows we have to align higher education with today’s job market,” says Maloney, adding that Romney’s campaign has been actively reaching out to students on Ohio’s college campuses.
Young Northeast Ohio voters on Wednesday said they’re less pumped up about this year’s election than they were about the 2008 race.
Donald Davidson, 28, a recent CSU graduate who was serving in the military in Iraq when Obama won four years ago, says he plans to vote for Obama again even though he’s not as excited.
“Four years ago, I was a little more optimistic about Obama,” Davidson he said. “Now it’s kind of calmed down.”
Jalayn Zehr, a 22-year-old Cleveland State student from Kansas who backed McCain four years ago, said she doesn’t know whether she’ll vote this year because “they all seem so shady to me.”
Lakewood resident Shaun Zalewski, 21, who will enroll in graduate school at CSU this fall, described Obama as “the lesser of two evils.” He compared his options to the 2004 choice voters faced between incumbent GOP president George W. Bush and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
“People who couldn’t stand Bush voted for him because they didn’t want the uncertainty of Kerry,” said Zalewski. “Obama hasn’t been the worst president, but by no stretch of the imagination is he the best.”
Doug Brown co-authored this story.