The image is stark:
A male college student returns to his childhood bedroom, cluttered with packed boxes, high school trophies rimmed with dust and a now-rarely-used electric guitar. Like most of the room, the baby blue walls haven’t changed much, except for one image that now seems to stand out. The poster is half blue and half red, encouraging its onlooker to focus on the man smiling in the middle of the image. But something about the poster has changed in the time that this student has spent at university—maybe it’s the fading colors and encroaching yellowish tint, the paper’s curled edges or the slogan posted at the bottom of the poster: “Change We Can Believe In.” Fazed by the prospect of living at home post-graduation, the student removes the Barack Obama poster from the wall.
This image, characterized in vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention, is the Democratic Party’s worst nightmare and the one that Republicans want to replicate across college campuses. Mentions of the importance of young voters at the RNC were few and far between with the exception of Ryan’s allusion to a college grad “staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” but the image has underscored the important, yet potentially different, role that young voters might play come November.
“[Ryan’s comment] almost seemed to be as if it were designed to be tweeted and designed to be ‘Facebookable’ and galvanized,” said junior Daniel Strunk, who attended the RNC in Tampa, Fla.
For Democrats, 2008 was the year of the youth vote, when two out of every three voters under 30 supported President Barack Obama, not only providing the historic candidate with the votes necessary to clinch a victory but energizing the base of his campaign. Four years later, polls suggest that enthusiasm might be fading as college students become more weary of economic stability and employment and less concerned about the social issues that have traditionally made college campuses beacons of progressive action.
North Carolina’s young voters find themselves in the dead center of this confusing mix. Despite the state’s lean toward Obama four years ago, Republicans have had an impressive comeback. In 2010, Republicans regained control of the state General Assembly for the first time in more than a century, and Romney currently maintains a notable lead over Obama. Yet just under a month ago, more than 30,000 Obama enthusiasts descended on the state to refine the Democratic platform, giving Obama a slight bump in the polls. However, it remains to be seen whether young Democrats will generate state support for Obama—as they did in 2008— or if the Republican Party, which has rarely boasted youth support, will use the economy to appeal to young voters and return the state to its long-standing red tradition.
An Elon University and Charlotte Observer poll conducted on the heels of the Democratic National Convention suggests that the days of strong Obama support among youth voters are long gone. Among 18- to 30-year-old voters polled, 36 percent reported that they were “very excited” about voting in the upcoming election—the lowest amount of support of any age group polled.
Support for Obama among this age demographic is still high, with 58 percent of likely voters in North Carolina age 30 and under supporting Obama versus 34 percent supporting Mitt Romney. But these figures represent a significant drop in support from the 2008 election cycle and appear to be representative of a national trend among college students. According to an online Harvard Institute of Politics survey, Obama only maintains a 12-point lead over Romney among voters ages 18 to 24, a lead that is sizable but only half of what Obama’s lead is among 25- to 29-year-olds. Moreover, many polls indicate that younger voters are more likely to be undecided and less likely to turn out to polling stations.
The reasoning for the notable shift in voter allegiance likely lies in two key issues—the economy and unemployment. National unemployment in August was 8.1 percent, a sharp increase from the 6.1 percent unemployment rate in August 2008. With North Carolina’s unemployment rate consistently hovering above the national rate, job creation could be a more important issue among young voters in the state.
In fact, the economy has formed the base of the Republican strategy to increase support for Romney among younger voters. “The focus is tailored toward the economy,” said Strunk, a Chronicle columnist and the college manager of North Carolina Young Americans for Romney. “That’s the best strategy, and it’s the right strategy because that’s what voters should care about.”
Using Conventions as a Rallying Point
But these statistics don’t seem to faze Democrats.
“The numbers that I look at are: How many people are registering to vote? How many people are volunteering? And on those things, we are seeing excitement that is as high as it was in ‘08—exceeding room capacity,” said senior Elena Botella, current College Democrats of North Carolina President and former president of Duke Democrats.
Indeed, if the Democratic National Convention is any indication, youth support for Obama may be rising. A historic number of young Democrats from North Carolina—defined as anyone under age 36—attended this year’s convention. The North Carolina Democratic Party set a goal of 19 youth delegates at the convention—determined by affirmative action—but a total of 32 youth delegates and four youth alternates were ultimately approved, setting a record for the state. Of those young delegates, six were college students, including Botella from Duke, representing schools that literally span the state. The North Carolina GOP did not release its delegates’ age or ethnicity information.
“I think you’ll still see a lot of enthusiasm for the president,” said senior Firoz Jameel, who attended the DNC as a part of his current position on Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton’s campaign for state governor. Though he understands the source of some college students’ frustrations with Obama, Jameel doubts that there will be a notable shift in allegiance when students turn out to vote. “I think it always takes longer to build back than it does to take down support,” he added. However, the Republican Party’s emphasis on young voters seems to pale in comparison to that of the Democrats—which may be part of party strategy. Beyond Ryan’s mention of a 20-something disappointed with Obama’s policies, the attention of the Republican National Convention was not heavily geared toward encouraging youth participation, Strunk noted.
As a college student, Strunk acknowledged that a greater emphasis on people his age might have been nice but does not make much political sense. With the exception of Ryan’s address, the junior political science major said that none of the speeches appeared to be targeted at exciting the youth vote. “The DNC will have that, and the reason is that the youth has historically been an overwhelming voting block that has supported the Democrats,” he said. “Every speech has an opportunity cost.”
But if Republicans were to expand their base, Strunk acknowledged that overcoming the emphasis college students place on social issues would prove difficult. Duke students don’t need much of a reminder of this fact—political activity opposing the state’s constitutional amendment to limit the types of recognized domestic unions was high only a few months ago. Durham County was one of few North Carolina counties that voted against Amendment One. Of the 4,061 people who voted at the Duke polling station, 3,847—95 percent—voted against it.
And even though the election’s result wasn’t a victory for many on campus, the primary encouraged many out-of-state students to register in North Carolina and set a precedent for high voter turnout on campus. Increased participation in the presidential election may have a notable impact on the outcome of state races, as well, especially with more students registered in the state.
Though some have criticized Duke students for being politically apathetic, Jameel seemed confident that many out-of-state students would remain registered in the state given that its outcome is still up in the air. As a Democrat, Jameel was hopeful that Dukies would even pay attention to state politics. “I think that a lot of people are very unhappy with the North Carolina General Assembly in the two years that Republicans have been in charge. They have cut North Carolina’s investment in the future, and I think a lot of people are caring about that deeply.... They see the local impact and how it directly relates to their daily lives.”