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Campaigns court youth vote, but turnout is questionable

What a difference four years make.

2008: Young voters turn out in historic proportions. Many buy into the “hope and change” of then-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign, his last name becoming something of a war cry across college campuses. In all, 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds show up at the polls, two-thirds marking his name on their ballots.

2012: Crickets.

Not total silence, of course, but the percentage of young people who say they’re going to vote has dropped. There’s a palpable lack of excitement compared with the electric atmosphere four years ago, they say. Obama was so much more inspirational then. As for Republican nominee Mitt Romney, he’s not exactly a fresh face either.

There’s also a festering cynicism about a political environment scarred by partisan sparring.

“It’s a mediocre atmosphere all across the board,” said Brittanee Coulter, a 20-year-old at Maple Woods Community College. “I don’t think there is any excitement at all this year.”

This election season, said Harvard Institute of Politics director Trey Grayson, “there are three options: Romney, Obama and staying home.”

And staying home could be a problem for Obama, said pollster John Zogby.

The youth vote could be critical in deciding the election, he said, specifically in at least nine battleground states that are too close to call.

But the relationship between youth and politics isn’t just a tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats. It has turned into a battle to convince 46 million young citizens that government is worth their while, in this election — and for the rest of their lives.

In this election, it’s too early to tell which way the youth vote will go, if it goes at all, Zogby said.

Likely voters age 18-29 still skew in Obama’s favor — a Zogby poll from last weekend showed 53 percent favor the president compared to 36 percent for Romney.

But those numbers may not be as solid as poll results for other demographics.

That’s because this age group is a “volatile” one, Zogby said. Many haven’t been engaged in politics before, and what happens on the campaign trail — gaffes, missteps and all — has a real influence on their decision to vote. It could depend on something that happens during the last week of campaigning.

In addition, the remaining 11 percent of likely voters in the poll said they were undecided. And that figure leads Zogby to think that many of them aren’t actually going to vote, based on his experience with some other demographics that typically skew Democratic.

“A likely voter today may not be a likely voter Nov. 6,” Zogby said. “At the very least, they need some convincing to vote for Obama again.”

Similar concerns

Young people tend to list the same issues and concerns as the rest of America — and in the same order of importance.

The economy. Health care. Education.

“We find that young people don’t have a unique issue orientation,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

For Laurel Beekman, 22, education is key — she’d love to get a master’s degree in library science within the next two to five years. But “with matters the way they are, it’s not possible for me” right now, she said. Maybe once she gets her finances in order.

For now, the July graduate of William Jewell College ison staff at the Kansas City, Kan., Public Library’s Argentine branch.

So what does make younger voters different from any other bloc?

For starters, many live in an online world, more isolated from the television ads. That means they’re pushed to seek out information on politics if they want it, the Institute of Politics’ Grayson said.

This is a mobile generation, he added. Their primary point of contact is typically a cell phone, not a land line.

And simply visiting college campuses doesn’t seem like a safe bet for candidates to reach all of them.

Katie Evensen, a barista at a small coffeehouse in Westwood Hills, is no longer on campus. She took classes at the International House of Prayer University in Grandview, but didn’t graduate.

The 27-year-old from Minnesota is still undecided on which candidate she’ll pick, even though she calls herself a single-issue voter, concerned primarily with the pro-life movement.

“If a candidate’s policies do not protect the innocence in the womb, then I don’t know how I can trust them when it comes to other issues” like war or health care, Evensen said.

But as for choosing a candidate, she said she definitely has to do more research.

Hit the streets and talk to young people, and a number of them will shrug when asked about the election. Some of them aren’t planning on voting because they simply don’t know enough about either candidate.

Andrew Miller, president of the University of Missouri-Kansas City College Democrats, said a “strangely” high number of people tell him they don’t want to vote.

Surprisingly, he said, more people his age — he’s a 21-year-old junior — are more energized about the Senate race between Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Todd Akin than they are about Obama’s campaign.

“I think this is the first time for a lot of these people, people my age, that someone lower than the president has made a big mark in the area,” Miller said of the Senate race.

Todd Akin’s comments last month about rape have gotten young people talking.

The presidential candidates? Not so much.

Out of spotlight

What’s changed from 2008 is that millenials aren’t in the political spotlight anymore.

“For all of their Twitter and Facebook pages and so on, the target audience of both campaigns is not the 18- to 26-year-old demographic,” said George Connor, political science department head at Missouri State University. “The campaign seems to be focusing on swing states, blue-collar union voters, lower-middle-class voters.”

And if no one is beating down young voters’ door, it may be that they’re not paying as much attention, analysts say.

They also might not see anything fresh or new in the field of candidates, said Bob Beatty, assistant professor of political science at Washburn University


Miller said the somewhat stale feeling of the race is typical of re-election campaigns.

“It’s always new and exciting the first time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s so much that people don’t like Barack Obama. We know Barack Obama.”

And analysts haven’t seen any numbers to indicate that the pick of Paul Ryan, 42, is appealing to younger voters because of his age.

Many young people also don’t like what they hear being shouted over their heads. Partisan fighting is helping to turn off voters participating in perhaps only their first or second presidential election.

“They were born with and have a growing disenchantment with government,” Zogby said.

This year’s campaigns aren’t helping.

“This time, there is a bit of, ‘Vote for me because this is what the other guy’s going to do,’ ” Beatty said. “For older voters or people who voted before, they might be used to that. For younger voters, that might not be appealing to them for the first time.”

Amanda Price, 20, said that messages for people her age are drowned out by the bitter partisan mudslinging.

“The commercials and ads on TV — it makes me sick,” she said. “One side is bashing the other side and vice versa. It’s disgusting. I want to know what you stand for, not what the other people are doing wrong.”

That set off vigorous nods of agreement at the table where she was sitting while taking a break from classes at Maple Woods Community College.

Most students at her table said they’re going to vote. But one idea echoed: the tiredness these 20-somethings feel seeing candidates pointing fingers.

Chris Boeh said he never follows a politician for more than a day on Twitter because of the number of negative attacks that show up on his feed.

“It’s off-putting when you get on there to see candidates’ views on something, and they just tell you constantly what the other person’s doing, and what they’re doing wrong,” the 21-year-old said.

“I have some faith and trust that somebody somewhere will fix (the economy), but at the same time, no real plan is showing up right now. And that is worrying.”

Finding votes

The campaign goal now, Beatty said, has turned to bringing young voters who turned out in 2008 back to the polls.

“Both candidates, in a way, are not new, and it’s going to be harder to grab new young voters’ attention,” he said.

Christian Morgan, a vice president at Axiom Strategies and a Republican strategist, said he doesn’t see a lack of enthusiasm among young people when it comes to discussing the economy. But he and his team need to take the campaign to them.

“It’s your job as a consultant, candidate and campaign to go and get the youth vote,” Morgan said. “You have to interrupt their lives.”

Kristen Soltis, vice president of Washington-based polling and research firm The Winston Group, said she was particularly critical of Republicans in 2008 because they didn’t try hard enough to reach youth. Soltis advises the super PAC Crossroads Generation, a conservative group aimed at young people.

“We just assumed they were going to vote for Obama, and we gave up on them,” Soltis said.

This time Crossroads Generation is using short YouTube videos to touch on complicated topics. Among the titles: “Taxes in 60 Seconds” and “Obamacare in 60 Seconds.”

“You have to be where young people are getting their information,” Soltis said.

Jessica Podhola, executive director for the Jackson County Democrats, said one focus is coordinating a “massive” effort to get people to the polls on Election Day — making phone calls, knocking on doors, sending emails and organizing rides.

Like Republican strategists, Podhola knows the importance of meeting young people where they are.

The focus is on touting the president’s record — increases in Pell grant funding and downward pressure on student loans, Obama’s changed stance on gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell among them.

But Podhola also is worried about the lasting effect political fighting might have.

“The biggest threat to our American democracy is the lack of civility in politics because it turns people off,” she said. “It’s very easy to become disengaged.”

In 2012, the messages both campaigns send to young people could influence the way they see politics in years to come.

“That shapes the rest of their lives,” Soltis said.