The Straits Times
Published on Oct 05, 2012
Election 2012

Obama can still count on cooling youth vote

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Sept 2, 2012.


NEW YORK - In 2008, America's young people felt like they owned a piece of the Obama campaign. They turned out in record numbers to help hoist Mr Barack Obama to victory.

Four years on, fewer under-30s are expected to show up at polling stations amid waning enthusiasm for the President, who is hoping to be reelected on Nov 6.

Mr Obama's loss may not translate into a gain for his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

For one, he retains an edge over Mr Romney despite his declining popularity with the young. And two, the Republicans are making a bet that courting the middle class would be smarter than chasing the fickle youth vote.

In the United States, anyone aged 18 and above can vote.

A Sept 3 Gallup poll found that Mr Obama's approval rating among voters in the 18-29 age group has shrunk from 75 per cent in 2009 to 59 per cent currently.

There is no denying that the falling numbers are a setback for the Democrat, as some 51 per cent of young men and women showed up to vote in 2008, and two out of three of them voted for Mr Obama.

Now, polls show, only 58 per cent say they will vote for him. More drastically, pollsters predict that the turnout among young voters will drop notably.

The tough economic times and high unemployment numbers have certainly dampened the mood. In addition, the novelty of the tech-savvy Obama campaign has also worn out.

"In 2008, the Obama campaign was something revolutionary and everyone wanted to be involved. Even I, at 17 and underaged, spent hours going door to door," recalled Ms Kaycie Miltenberger, a 20-year-old undergraduate at Syracuse University. "It has been a little more difficult to get the youth re-energised this year. They are fatigued."

The flagging enthusiasm notwithstanding, Mr Obama remains the default option for many young voters.

His frequent college campus visits, commencement speeches, and policies addressing issues like student debt have not gone unnoticed.

First-time voter and registered Democrat Austin Heyroth pointed to the President's success in extending student loan subsidies and his health-care plan that would allow students to stay on their parents' insurance plans till age 26 as reasons behind his vote for Mr Obama.

"I think it's very clear President Obama still is the candidate who knows what's important in terms of issues to college students, and is actually the one candidate who's working to address them," said the 19-year-old freshman.

Faced with the lingering loyalty towards Mr Obama and fears that the young will go missing on Election Day, the Republicans have made no concerted effort in grabbing the youth vote.

As Mr Nashoba Santhanam, a 20-year-old senior at Columbia University and president of his school's college Republicans, put it: "This time around, I know many of my friends who aren't planning to vote at all. The loss in enthusiasm translates more into apathy than into a move towards the Republicans."

In their book How Barack Obama Won, political watchers Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser note that even if no one under the age of 30 had voted, Mr Obama would still have won every state he carried with the exception of two.

That bit of maths may explain why Mr Romney has been more focused on winning over middle-class voters and the business community than the young.

To young Romney supporters like Ms Kate Christensen, 19, a sophomore at Barnard College, the strategy makes sense, because Mr Obama is likely to capture the youth vote again.

"I think Obama, and the Democratic Party in general, does a fantastic job of reaching out to young voters by appealing to vague ideals like 'hope' and 'change'," she said.

"Romney is wise to focus his campaign efforts elsewhere."

Opportunity still exists for the Republicans, though.

The ace in Mr Romney's pack is his running mate Paul Ryan, 42. His Gen-X appeal to the youth is obvious, and his libertarian economic remedies find traction with the younger crowd.

He mirrors, for example, the concerns of this age group when he says that the young will end up paying for America's welfare programmes but will never benefit from them.

This could help his party retain young voters who may otherwise be turned off by the conservative Republican stance on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Tomorrow, Ho Pei Shan examines the women's vote.