“I watched that speech that Obama gave, the victory speech in Millennium Park in Chicago, and it was, like, one of those defining moments,” says Bob Carroll, a 23-year-old from Westlake who was a student at Miami University in Oxford in 2008 when he voted for Barack Obama. Carroll says the campus was overtaken with Obamania back then.
“There was that excitement, that hope and change,” Carroll says. “Everybody was swept up. And I’m completely guilty of it.”
Carroll’s life has changed a lot in the last four years. He left Miami U and worked, first as a car salesman and later as an intern at IMG. He transferred to Cleveland State University, closer to home, and now he’s in his senior year. The experience of being away from college and working in the “real world,” he says, changed his politics, too.
“That shaped a lot of what I looked for, at least, in an economic policy,” Carroll says. “So four years later, at a different college, it’s a completely different story.”
Carroll is voting for Mitt Romney this year. So is his friend Chas Kennedy, a 22-year-old sophomore at Cleveland State from Bay Village. Kennedy worked with Carroll before enrolling in college, and he says that informs his politics, too.
“I was selling cars in what’s considered a small business,” Kennedy says. “So I can legitimately see the effect of the Obama administration in, like, real world situations.”
He voted for John McCain in 2008, but he says he was torn and was ready to give Obama a chance after he won the election.
“I kind of bought in to his hope and change type thing,” Kennedy says. “I was 18 years old. I was young. I was like, ‘Okay, maybe this is the leader America needs.’”
Now, though, Kennedy says he’s “definitely” voting for Romney.
“When you’re actually able to see, like, what an administration’s policy’s doing to the country on a first-hand experience, it really opens your eyes, and it puts in a whole new perspective,” he says. “That’s the biggest reason I’m voting for them, I think.”
To be sure, Kennedy and Carroll’s politics are atypical for college students and young people. Across town at Case Western Reserve University, freshmen Kassie Stewart, of Chillicothe, and Laura Sprunt, of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, are more representative. Sitting on the lawn enjoying their lunches, Stewart and Sprunt say they are voting for Obama. Stewart’s laptop computer is covered in Obama and Sherrod Brown campaign stickers. Sprunt says she only decided recently to vote for Obama, but she’s very committed to the president.
In truth, so are most young voters. According to Gallup, 59 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 approve of the job Obama is doing. The latest national poll from CBS News found 55 percent of likely voters in that same age bracket support Obama, compared to just 38 percent who support Romney. (Among all voters polled, CBS found Obama with just a 2 point lead overall, 48 percent to 46 percent.) No matter which candidate claims victory November 6, Obama will almost certainly win young voters, perhaps overwhelmingly.
The data show that young voters were a key part of Obama’s winning 2008 coalition. Exit polls showed 66 percent of voters within the 18-29 demographic voted for Obama, a 13-point advantage for Democrats and the highest in nearly 30 years of exit poll data. Nationally, turnout among young voters increased by only one percentage point, but in some key states where Obama won, the jump was more significant: a 5-point increase in Indiana, a 4-point increase in North Carolina, and a 4-point increase in Virginia.
With such a tight election, Obama can’t afford to lose much of this advantage. But on campuses in Ohio, the president doesn't seem to inspire that level of enthusiasm. Outside the auditorium at Cleveland State where Paul Ryan is delivering a a high-profile address, the Obama supporters there to protest are hardly a presence. (There is a man, however, selling t-shirts that read, "Rock with Romney.")
Meanwhile, at Case Western, a flock of students walk right past a table manned by one Obama volunteer, who’s there to encourage students to vote early. In my hour and a half on campus, I only spot one student with an Obama t-shirt. And the only election-related material pinned on a community board on Case Western’s main lawn is an advertisement for a Gary Johnson rally. “Hell, yes,” the poster reads. “Be libertarian one time.”
Kennedy, from Cleveland State, says he’s even seen some of his Obama-supporting friends change heart.
“On Facebook in ’08, I’d post a pro-McCain status and I’d get 15 people calling me heartless,” he says. “Now I’ll post something pro-Romney-Ryan and I’ll get, like, 30 likes.”
Obama backers like Stewart and Sprunt recognize their peers are less enthusiastic about the election than they may have been four years ago.
“I watched the last two debates in our common room in the dorm,” says Sprunt. “And I think there was more of a bias toward President Obama, but also a lot of people were not so much excited as disappointed.”
“I don’t think it was a sense of, like, ‘oh, he did horrible,’” Stewart says. “Like, I think it was more a sense of, ‘oh, he didn’t exceed our expectations.’”
Stewart saw Obama three days after his poorly reviewed first debate performance, at a rally at Cleveland State.
“We were excited to make sure that he was, like, okay and still had it,” she laughs.
But it isn’t just the debates that may have depressed energy among young voters, they say.
“I think it’s a lot easier to get excited for someone before they actually hold the office because they encounter all the problems that come along with the office,” Sprunt says. “Not that I blame President Obama for anything that he has or hasn’t done, but it’s easier to talk before you’ve actually gone through the situation.”
Bob Carroll, the Obama-turned-Romney supporter, sums it up: “Once you become a politician, you stop being cool.”