The hope for change that mobilized young voters in support of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is waning.
Anthony Sanderson, Trinity ’11, was a passionate supporter of Obama in his first pursuit of the presidency. But four years later, Sanderson is so frustrated by the president’s first term that he is voting Republican in the upcoming race—no matter which candidate secures the Republican nomination.
In 2008, Obama electrified the youth demographic with grand aspirations of post-partisanship fueled by the soaring rhetoric of “Yes we can.” But as an incumbent presiding over a deeply divided country and an economy just now beginning to emerge from a protracted recession, the president can no longer rely on securing two-thirds of the youth vote, as he did when he was elected. Although students said they would still consider voting for Obama again, many expressed disappointment with his first term.
Sunny Kantha, Trinity ’09 and a 2009 Young Trustee who worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 in the financial operations wing, said that though he still supports the president, he is less passionate about his candidacy.
“He disappointed a lot of people and a lot of young voters,” Kantha said. “He tried way too long to make everyone happy. That clearly didn’t work out. He alienated a lot of supporters. It has become such a polarized political climate.”
Kantha and Sanderson are part of a large group of disillusioned young voters who are reconsidering where to place their support in the upcoming presidential election. The Pew Research Center reported that immediately after his inauguration, Obama’s approval rating among 18 to 29 year olds stood at 73 percent. Today, only 12 percent of youth voters believe the country is “headed in the right direction,” according to a December 2011 poll conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
‘Losing the magic’
Senior Arthur Leopold became the youngest elected delegate in New York while working on the Obama campaign in 2008. Still a fervent supporter of the president, Leopold attributed Obama’s ability to generate excitement in the last election to a transformational political agenda that gave young voters a voice.
“He offered the youth a different type of politics,” Leopold said. “He was inspirational and all about change in an era when everyone wanted change.... It was the cool thing to be a part of.”
But Leopold acknowledged that Obama will not be able to generate the same kind of enthusiasm in this election.
“Has it fizzled? Sure, it absolutely has,” he said. “But it has more to do with Obama serving time in office versus the momentum of a full-fledged campaign.”
Former president of the Duke Democrats Ben Bergmann, Trinity ’11, recounted waking up at 4 a.m. on Election Day in 2008 and campaigning door-to-door in the pouring rain. Although he vividly remembers Obama’s inspirational speech, Bergmann said Obama has now “lost his luster” and will have to adopt a new strategy moving forward if he wants to secure the youth vote.
“People are upset that he didn’t get to environmental and immigration problems as well and that he only passed health care,” Bergmann said. “And I am too, but with more time he can do that. The campaign has to figure out how to communicate that without losing the magic of the Obama image.”
GOP seizes ‘disillusioned’ students
As younger voters question their allegiance to the president, the Republican Party is experiencing a surge in college student involvement. The 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of key leaders and party followers, saw a 233 percent increase in student participation since 2007. Although only 1,500 students participated in the conference the year before Obama was elected, 5,000 attended the conference this year.
Junior Chloe Rockow, chair of the Duke College Republicans and a participant in CPAC for the past three years, said she has felt the momentum shift away from Obama among her fellow students.
“Obama had a lot of enthusiasm that people were looking for, especially students who are entering the job market, but then when we don’t see the change that we wanted, people tend to get disillusioned,” she said.
Several students noted that the president had not done enough to improve the struggling economy. Sanderson said he ultimately stopped supporting Obama when he felt the president’s policy priorities became unaligned with his own.
“I thought that he was going to help the economy,” Sanderson said. “I look at the last three years, we run a trillion dollar deficit every year. Three years ago when I voted for Obama, I did not think he would add so much to the debt. I have been very disappointed.”
‘Halftime in America’
Obama’s lofty notions of hope and change have given way to an emphasis on economic fairness. After the Occupy Wall Street protests forced the issue of income disparity into the public consciousness, the president will seek to strike a more populist tone, arguing that his positions—curbing the power of special interests and eliminating tax loopholes—are more effective ways of fighting inequality than Republican plans of slashing government.
Likening Obama’s future campaign to the famous Chrysler Super Bowl XLVI advertisement—“It’s halftime in America”—Leopold noted the importance of allowing the president to finish what he started.
“We got ourselves out of a big hole, and we need to continue to push forward. Obama is the president to help us do that,” Leopold said. “He is getting us out of the hole, and he needs to stay in office, or we are going to take 10 steps back.”
Kantha said he felt strongly that in the end, the youth vote will still go to Obama—even as the excitement has dwindled.
“People won’t be quitting their jobs to go work on his campaign like they did last time, but once they realize that the Republicans promote polices that favor such a small group of people, they will rally together,” he said.
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