At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall of 2008, the spectacle of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign dominated Meghan Gilliland’s sophomore year. Going to the library, traversing the quad, or passing through a campus gathering place known as The Pit entailed running a gauntlet of clipboard-wielding Obama volunteers beseeching students to vote. A surge of enthusiasm among young voters would prove decisive in delivering North Carolina to Obama. Nationally, he would capture two of every three ballots cast by voters under 30, a crucial component of his victory.
Obama inspired Gilliland, and she urged her friends to vote for him. He was vowing to pull troops out of Iraq and close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. She felt certain he would repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gay soldiers, and embrace marriage equality for all gays and lesbians, a major issue among younger voters.
Obama’s ascendance as the nation’s first African-American president held special resonance for Gilliland, a white woman who had grown up in a North Carolina town she describes as “pretty redneck.”
“A lot of people still use the N-word there,” she says. “They know it’s wrong, but they still use it.”
On the November night when Obama secured his victory, Gilliland and her husband, Matt, sat on a couch in their rented townhouse in Raleigh and watched the returns come in on television with a mixture of astonishment and joy. When Obama was declared the winner, they shouted and hugged. In Chapel Hill, students rushed Franklin Street, the main drag through town, blocking traffic in both directions and lighting bonfires — a ritual ordinarily reserved for Carolina basketball victories over the school’s despised rival, Duke.
“I was ecstatic,” she says. “I really felt like things were going to change in the country and be more positive. We were going to close Guantanamo. We were going to get out of Iraq. I had hopes that same sex marriage was going to become legal all across the country. I had hopes that the economy would get better.”
Today, with Obama in the midst of a tough reelection campaign, he can no longer count on the same level of support from young voters like Meghan and Matt Gilliland. Both are disappointed and bitter about his presidency, so much so that they are backing the fringe Republican candidate, Ron Paul. Their disillusionment represents a marginal yet potentially decisive shift among younger voters, one that could make Obama a one-term president: A slice of the youth electorate has soured either on the president or on politics in general to an extent that could see lower participation at the polls in November – an outcome that could put the White House in play.
Americans under 30 are considerably less interested in the election this year than they were in 2008, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Pew Research Center, in what some experts construe as a harbinger of lower voter turnout. In a sign that Romney sees potential to carve into Obama's youth support, his campaign on Monday launched an outreach effort, Young Americans for Romney, deploying his youngest son, 31-year-old Craig Romney, to head the operation.
Obama’s failed promises, particularly on civil liberties, have turned off some 20-something voters, according to interviews with scores of young people in four states and political analysts. The struggle to find jobs in a lean economy while grappling with student loan debt has so consumed others that politics has come to feel like a sideshow to them. Obama’s tenure sits atop those fault lines.
“He’s in danger,” says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “It’s not over. It’s a long way until November. You can easily imagine things shifting, but they have their work cut out for them.”
Few expect Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to make significant inroads among young voters. Eighteen- to 29-year-olds favor Obama over Romney by 28 percentage points in a recent Pew Research Center poll. Many young voters aren’t enamored of the laissez-faire economic positions Romney champions, with roughly seven in 10 favoring increased taxes for wealthy Americans and government policies aimed at narrowing the gap between rich and poor, according to a recent survey of 18- to 24-year-olds by the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.
Still, the key factor determining who will occupy the White House is likely to be turnout: Young voters went to the polls in relatively large numbers four years ago, and signs suggest turnout will be lower this time, potentially spelling fewer votes for Obama. In the estimation of some experts, that could be enough to cost the president crucial battleground states like North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio, perhaps tipping the election to Romney.
“For Obama, the youth vote is incredibly important, the difference between a potential win and loss,” says John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. “On almost every single attitudinal measure we have that would help predict turnout, all those attitudinal measures are down or depressed.”
As some of Meghan Gilliland’s friends graduated from UNC in the spring of 2009, most failed to find jobs in their fields. When Matt graduated from North Carolina State University the following May, carrying $8,000 in student loan debt, he, too, confronted slender prospects. He had hoped to find a position at a non-profit, but he settled for part-time delivery work at Pizza Hut and Jimmy John’s, the sandwich chain. Once, he found himself delivering a sandwich to a former college professor who had previously guaranteed Matt would get a good job. (“He didn’t tip very well,” Matt recalls.) He eventually took refuge in law school, adding $30,000 to his pile of debt.
As he drove around in his 1999 Taurus, the exuberance of his student years yielding to the grim reality of low-wage service-sector life, Matt listened to audio books about the economy, many offering a libertarian perspective. He had previously supported Obama’s economic policies, and particularly his efforts to stimulate growth through increased government spending, but he began to view those measures as exacerbating the problem – by forcing the government to become just as dependent on borrowing as an overzealous credit card holder.
“He was doing exactly the opposite of what I thought would be best,” Matt says.
He was particularly put off by Obama’s continuation of the taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street begun by President Bush. “Virtually everyone hired by the Obama administration was brought in from the upper echelons of business, and they brought enormous conflicts of interest,” Matt says. “It’s cronyism. I just became very disillusioned with the entire system.”
Matt’s reading and thinking influenced Meghan, for whom economic concerns were about to become paramount: Last month, she graduated from UNC with about $15,000 in debt and deep worries about her own job prospects.
By then, Meghan was also souring on Obama, whom she once embraced because of his unequivocal stance against the Iraq War — a war that was personal for her. A friend who had served as a Marine in Iraq, someone she remembered as “a really good guy,” had seemed transformed by combat.
“He was just very, very angry about everything,” she says. “He cursed constantly. He wouldn’t really talk about his experience, but he was talking about people in the Middle East, like they were all the enemy. He was really into playing violent video games. It was uncomfortable and tense.”
As Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan, she found herself questioning his integrity. As he declined to shut Guantanamo in the face of Congressional opposition, she felt betrayed.
“The whole situation is completely disgusting and frightening,” she says. “I definitely knew hope and change was not really happening. I’ve had to ask myself, ‘And I voted for this?’ I felt kind of hoodwinked, but he was our anti-war choice in ‘08. Maybe I was just naive.”
By the time Obama endorsed same-sex marriage last month — a step that should win favor among many young voters — Meghan was unimpressed.
“Too little, too late,” she says.
The System Isn't Working
The Obama campaign is counting on contrasts with the other guy to carry the day, crafting plans to portray Romney as an artifact of the failed policies that delivered the Great Recession, while emphasizing his support for restrictions on contraception and abortion, and his professed skepticism about climate change — issues that would seemingly make it hard for him to gain traction among younger voters.
“This guy is going to have real problems,” says Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina. “They are just not going to have an easy time having a fertile conversation.”
The president has been sparring with Republicans in Congress to prevent the interest rates on federal student loans from doubling. He has been emphasizing how his health care reform allows people under 26 to remain on their parents’ health insurance policies. Despite the baggage of incumbency, Obama retains a singular ability to forge connections with his audiences — particularly young people.
And the Obama team is counting on a core asset, its vaunted on-the-ground operation, featuring an army of volunteers dedicated to identifying supporters and getting them to the polls.
“The youth vote is an absolutely important part of our winning strategy,” Messina says. “Turnout is the question. That’s why a ground game matters.”
Yet in the estimation of Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, one of the founders of the youth voter registration campaign, Rock The Vote, and a confidant of Hillary Clinton, the Obama campaign should be concerned about turnout. Four years ago, a trio of factors worked in Obama’s favor. “You had a next generation leader who was younger, and who appealed to younger people,” Rosen says. “You had a kind of foreboding sense about the state of the world that they were entering post-college. You also had the threat of war.”
The foreboding is still here, yet it may be working against Obama this time, given that he has been in charge for three-plus years — a point emphasized with vigor by Romney. In a recent survey of 18- to 29-year-olds conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 58 percent said they disapproved of how Obama has handled the economy. The Iraq war is officially at an end, but the fight in Afghanistan now belongs to Obama, an issue on which the Harvard survey found a 48 percent level of disapproval.
“Obama now has only one of the three things working for him,” Rosen says. “He’s still younger, more relatable and more energetic than Mitt Romney.”
Last time, Obama unspooled a narrative of deliverance from traditional politics while running as an outsider. This time, he has to account for a disturbing present while selling young voters that he can improve things. Last time, he could build support by diagnosing problems. This time, he has to appeal for patience as possible solutions arrive.
“That’s exactly what they’re struggling with,” Rosen says. “It’s a very significant culture of immediate gratification. For a guy who’s been around now for a few years, he says it himself: He’s not as fresh.”
Obama’s campaign operatives describe multiple pathways leading to reelection. Obama might compensate for soft support among men by boosting his showing among women. He could lose Florida, which he won narrowly last time, but still win Ohio, where the auto bailout has generated jobs. He might lose Ohio and Florida, but still ride to victory via a strong performance in Western states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona.
But most of the available pathways share one essential component: Obama needs a dominant showing among young voters.
“The youth vote is incredibly important, and particularly for Obama,” says Mark Penn, the pollster who served as Bill Clinton’s data guru, and Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist on her bid for the White House. “It was his core base in 2008.”
In three states, Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina, voters under 30 decisively tipped the scales in Obama’s favor, turning what would have been defeats into victories. North Carolina presents the clearest case. George W. Bush carried the state by more than 12 percentage points in both 2000 and 2004. Among voters 30 and over, Obama lost to the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, according to exit polls. But he took 73 percent of the under-30 electorate, and that gave him the state by a mere 14,000 votes.
According to the consensus view among political strategists, 11 states now considered tossups will determine the outcome of the 2012 race: North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Iowa and Missouri. These states collectively hold more than half of the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the presidency. Obama lost only two of these states last time — Missouri, where he came within one percent, and Arizona, home to McCain. In seven of the nine states he won, he took at least 60 percent of the under-30 vote, according to analysis by CIRCLE. In an eighth state, Virginia, he narrowly missed the 60 percent mark.
Evidence of discontent among young voters has pollsters seriously questioning whether Obama will be able to engineer a similar showing this time.
Obama’s heavy dependence on youth votes in battleground states explains why the Romney campaign is expending resources, including appearances at universities, on courting younger voters. On its face, this strategy might seem like a waste of energy and money: Romney not only trails badly in polls among young people, but Democrats tend to have a much easier time winning younger voters, given their liberal proclivities on social issues, environmental regulation and foreign policy. But for Romney, the objective is not to win a large share of votes. It is to deprive Obama of a smidgen of his base — a potentially decisive smidgen.
“He needs to replicate what he did in 2008,” says Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign. “Young voters generally vote for Democrats, but we think Governor Romney’s message of fiscal responsibility and pro-job growth policies will
appeal to them and bring some of them over to our side.”
Pollsters suggest Romney has legitimate reason for optimism. Last time, Obama had the benefit of running against McCain, whose lengthy Senate tenure and sometimes-befuddled debate performances provided an inexhaustible source of age-related hilarity for late night television. McCain compounded his troubles by attacking Obama as inexperienced, a tack that merely enhanced their generational differences. McCain suffered the worst drubbing among young people since 18-year-olds got the right to vote in 1972.
Romney has his own problems, including unscripted and explosive utterances that have made him look detached from economic reality. But merely trying to do a little better than McCain may prove a low bar.
Though Obama is still running strong among youth voters in the polls, the details reveal sharp differences across racial lines. The Harvard survey found Obama leading Romney among young voters by 43 percent to 26 percent, with 30 percent undecided. Young black and Hispanic voters favored Obama by spreads of 79-1 and 50-12 respectively. But among young
white voters, Obama trailed Romney by 37 percent to 34 percent.
The Obama campaign is counting on two key demographic trends: Between election day in 2008 and this year, the number of Americans between 18 and 29 years old will have swelled by more than a million; much of that growth skews African-American and Latino.
“The pie is now bigger,” says Messina. “That’s what people keep missing. This has long been a part of our strategy. These are people who agree with us on the issues. The question is whether or not we can put together the ground game, and I think we can.”
In going back to the well for youth voters, Obama is seeking to engage a slice of the electorate that has suffered some of the worst depredations of the Great Recession. At least two-thirds of students who emerge with bachelor’s degrees must borrow to finance their college education, up from less than half in the early 1990s, according to a recent New York Times investigation. Only about half of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 are now employed, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Many college graduates are stuck in jobs that do not require their degrees.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” says Andrew Nelms, 25, who graduated three years ago with a bachelor’s in counseling psychology from Toccoa Falls College, a Christian school in Georgia. He carries $22,000 in student loan debt, a burden he confronts with his barista job at Caribou Coffee, where he earns $9 an hour.
Nelms lays this out over lunch at the Remedy Diner, a vegetarian restaurant in a gritty neighborhood in downtown Raleigh. The cocktail list features something called the “Anxiety Antidote.” Nelms has been ingesting more traditional medicine — antidepressants, which a doctor recently described for the stress that dominates his life. His college degree has so far produced a resume mostly limited to stints at Applebee’s and Caribou coffee.
“It’s caused me a whole lot of anxiety,” he says. “It’s hard to even find an internship in this area, even an unpaid one. It just sucks to think that I’ve wasted the last six years of my life on, well, nothing. I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t know how difficult.”
He has thought about nursing school, but the prospect of taking on more debt frightens him. So does the thought of not taking on more debt and staying the course.
Four years ago, Nelms voted for McCain, a fact he offers more as testament to his surroundings — a Christian campus — than his personal values. This time, Nelms may vote for Paul. Or he might vote for Obama, having been won over by the president’s efforts to tamp down interest rates on student loans.
“It definitely makes me view him in a more favorable light,” he says.
This is precisely the sort of issue the Obama campaign is counting on to produce support from young people. Kal Penn, the actor famous for his roles in the Harold & Kumar movies — classics of the stoner genre — toured campuses to drum up votes for Obama in 2008, and has been doing so again in recent months. Students are unhappy about all sorts of things, he says, from the job market to the high costs of college, but they grasp that Obama has been laboring to address these problems, while encountering grief from Republicans.
“They have been frustrated about the same things that I’ve been frustrated about, and that the president has been frustrated about, and that’s the pace of change,” says Penn. “The conversation about what has not happened in Congress is a lively one.”
But even if young voters are inclined to blame Republicans for monkey-wrenching progress, the mere fact of partisan bickering could dampen enthusiasm and depress turnout. The Harvard Institute of Politics survey found significant reductions in the percentage of young Americans who say they have clicked the “like” button on Facebook in support of political candidates and political issues, a development that may speak to social media fatigue as much as it does to political disenchantment.
Obama took the White House by persuading large numbers of young people to vote. His reelection now appears to hinge on a repeat from this historically fickle crowd. Despite the relative surge, youth turnout was still just 49 percent in 2008, as compared to 66 percent among those 30 and over, according to CIRCLE’s analysis. In both 1996 and 2000, only about 36 percent of Americans under-30 bothered to vote. Signs now point to a return to the mean.
“Almost every indication that I personally have looked at since 2009 indicates that young people are less interested in voting now than they were in 2008,” says Harvard’s Della Volpe. “There’s significant pessimism, mistrust and lack of belief that system is working.”
Get Out The Vote
For Democratic strategists, the youth vote beckons as a prodigious frontier of fresh support waiting to be harvested. It also carries dividends that transcend face-value electoral arithmetic, lending the candidate the aura of trendy cool, along with the subsidiary benefit of extra media attention. Rolling Stone is surely not pining to profile the candidate who polls nicely among Rust Belt-dwelling senior citizens, but the minute an aspirant captures the attention of college students, words like zeitgeist start getting thrown into the conversation, and comparisons are made to the Kennedys.
Then, spillover can result.
“The passion that young people had for Obama in 2008 carried over to having moderate parents and grandparents casting votes for Obama,” says Della Volpe. “Young people, maybe for the first time in a while, were persuading and influencing their parents rather than the other way around.”
How that happened speaks to a powerful confluence of factors. Broad disgust with Bush breached traditional divides of generation, geography and party, fostering a longing for someone who seemed above the partisan fray. Obama spoke not as a conventional politician, but as a moral figure holding out the promise of a better country, a more inclusive society, and a more productive discourse. He made voting for him seem like participating in a cultural awakening.
Much has been made of Obama’s adroit use of social media. This channel proved especially useful in connecting with younger voters, who are less likely to have fixed mailing addresses and landline phones, and who tend to be turned off by television advertising. But the real brilliance of Obama’s social media strategy was how it imbued the messaging with authenticity. In using Facebook, MySpace and other such channels to reach voters, the campaign turned ordinary people into the messengers. In place of top-down missives from a centralized campaign, college friends heard about Obama from their friends (or at least their “friends.”) This fit perfectly with the campaign’s emphasis on welcoming volunteers not as additions to a conventional apparatus, but as entrants to a grassroots movement.
“Obama did the best job of recognizing the untapped potential of the millennial generation, and reaching out to our generation in ways that were very effective,” says Alex Orlowski, who was an undergraduate at University of Dayton in 2008, and who co-authored a study on the nature of youth voter engagement, “Millennials Talk Politics.”
Here was a generation that had been reared amid emphasis on local community concerns. “We grew up with Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, and getting involved in the neighborhood, and the push toward community service as a requirement for graduation,” says Orlowski. “Two-thirds of the people we talked to saw volunteering as form of politics, a way to get involved in their community.”
Obama spoke directly to such values in 2008, but strategists doubt that he can duplicate that feat — simply because too much has changed. He is the incumbent now. Rather than an opportunity to ratify aspirational change, this election boils down to a choice between two candidates representing two halves of an unloved political system.
“It’s a big challenge,” says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles. “Circumstances are just entirely different. It’s just going to be more difficult. There is just not as much of that incredible organic enthusiasm as there was in ‘08 so it makes the organizational challenge much greater.”
Romney is betting that disaffection among young voters will deprive Obama of foot soldiers. “There is definitely an intensity decline,” says Williams, the Romney spokesman. “When there’s decline in intensity, turnout decreases. Also, it hurts their ground operations. When young voters have lower intensity, they are much less likely to come in on a Saturday and knock on doors and make phone calls.”
If that prognosis proves correct, it will reflect changing sentiments among people like Daniel Gordon.
Four years ago, Gordon was a freshman at Bowling Green State University in northwestern Ohio. He watched Obama’s speech after his victory in the Iowa caucuses and swiftly joined the cause as a volunteer. He saw Obama as the antithesis of the man who had dominated politics for most of his memory, George W. Bush, and the unsavory events that defined the Bush administration — lies about weapons of mass destruction, which pulled the country into Iraq; warrantless wiretapping of citizens; arrogance in world affairs; and the abandonment of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“He seemed transformative,” Gordon says of Obama. “This is somebody who could bring us back, who could have a national dialogue, somebody like Roosevelt or Kennedy. We wanted someone we could believe in, and not just another cynical politician. This was somebody who was actively defying the apathy and cynicism that had cemented around us.”
Gordon appreciated Obama’s push to expand access to health care. As a child in Bowling Green, where his mother taught first grade and his father was a professor, he had suffered from asthma. He remembered listening to his parents arguing with
insurance companies as they sought reimbursement for his care.
“None of those conversations seemed to end well,” he says.
He believed that Obama would restore jobs, grasping that the country was in the midst of a profound crisis, one that had hit Ohio and the Rust Belt with potency.
When he talks about Obama these days, Gordon sounds as if he is describing a failed relationship. He is incensed that the president did not push for a single-payer health care system, buying off the insurance lobby for its support, he says. He feels Obama’s stimulus spending package was too small.
“The kind of policies he’s put through are the right ones,” Gordon says, “but I don’t think they have gone far enough. There has been a recovery but it’s tepid. I really expected to see more of an FDR-like program, building infrastructure, putting people back to work. I expected to see a lot more investment in our nation as a whole.”
Obama has Gordon’s vote in the bag: Romney disgusts him. Yet even though Gordon is himself a politico, having been elected to the Bowling Green City Council, he does not plan to help Obama get out the vote.
“I do that for candidates I believe in,” he says. “A lot of people who were swept up in 2008 are not as engaged this time.”
Drawing On the Sidewalk
Sarah Griffin would like to be engaged, but she is too busy trying to find a job.
In 2008, when she was a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she got “caught up in the Obama fever.”
Two years later, during the midterm elections, she worked for Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic party aimed at mobilizing people in favor of Obama’s legislative agenda.
She is not volunteering this time, she says.
This is in part because she is disappointed with Obama, who has turned out to be less of a change agent than she imagined. Mostly, though, Griffin is preoccupied with a post-college life that hasn’t worked out as she planned.
For most of her life, Griffin had succeeded at nearly everything, and she figured her career would prove no different. As a high school student, she won a merit scholarship that covered her college tuition. Last spring, she graduated from college summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She had been the news director of the campus radio station, and she expected to find a job in journalism, or perhaps public relations. Then, when she put in for an entry-level job at a community radio station, she learned that 200 others had applied — among them, a former lecturer whose class she had taken in college. University budget cuts had eliminated his position.
Without a job, she moved in with her parents in the Raleigh suburb of Cary — the sort of place people describe as “really safe.” At first, it was nice to be home. She went to the gym with her mother. She enjoyed healthy fare at family dinners. As weeks turned into months, however, she began sinking into depression. This was no summer visit. This was her life.
She was sleeping in a cramped twin bed in the same room in which she had grown up, the walls painted dark red — a color she had chosen in middle school. “It’s like a little cave,” she says. She went to Target and bought a clothes rack, because her closet was stuffed full of the past — her prom dress, her high school volleyball uniforms, a giant teddy bear.
Her parents had always known her as someone with drive, but now they began asking her what she was doing to look for work. She chafed at their concern, even as she understood it; even as she felt bad about feeling irritated.
“They are really great parents and they have done so much, sacrificed so much of their time so I can have the best in life, and you don’t want to disappoint them,” she says. “I just felt really helpless.”
As her job search continued to yield rejection, she figured she had to do something — anything. A high school friend told her about a hostess job at the Lebanese restaurant where she worked, and Griffin took it. She greets people, wipes down tables, sets down silverware. One afternoon, the manager sent her outside with chalk to draw an enticing message on the sidewalk. As she bent down on the pavement, she made eye contact with a waiter who was outside on a cigarette break.
“I look up and I’m like, ‘I have a college degree, and I’m here drawing on the sidewalk,’” she says. The waiter laughed. He, too, had a college degree.
She doesn’t blame Obama for her predicament. “How can you blame one person for not having a job?” she says. “I don’t really know how we could have gotten out of this mess. It was all created by years of federal policy.”
But politics seems tainted. “I guess I’m going to vote, because I really don’t want the Republicans to get the White House, but it’s more of an anti-vote,” she says. “It seems like the system is really broken. Most people are just really sick of the vitriol and negativity, and not necessarily toward Obama, but just the whole thing. It’s going to be more difficult to get everyone excited, for sure. Most of the people I know are a lot more preoccupied with finding a job.”
The day after Griffin says this, Obama goes on national television and proclaims his support for gay marriage. The following morning when we meet for coffee at an artsy place in Raleigh, she is elated.
“That was fabulous,” she says, donning a pink Planned Parenthood T-shirt. “That really makes me feel better about him. I’ll probably go volunteer.”
She’s touched that Obama mentioned his conversations with his daughters as a factor in bringing him around.
“It’s nice to see him as a Dad again,” she says, “a guy beyond a politician.”
Voting Without Pleasure
At Obama headquarters, stories about people who worked for him last time but aren’t doing so this time tend to be dismissed as both inevitable and irrelevant: Some people have moved into different phases of their lives. New people will show up to take their places. Campaigns are about issues, organization, and mobilization, and in all of these facets the Obama campaign lays claim to considerable advantages.
Facebook, which proved so useful in 2008, has grown roughly ten-fold since. Twitter has exploded into a major channel of information. Young voters are much more socially connected than the rest of the electorate, rendering these uniquely powerful platforms.
Last time, Team Obama had to amass an organization on the fly. This time, the pieces are already there — the volunteers, the maps, the telephone lists.
“We’ve been on the ground for five years,” says Messina. “What we’re doing on the ground this time makes last time look like Jurassic Park.”
Talk to young people immersed in the Obama campaign and they assure you that their peers will ultimately deliver the votes. Yes, they say, many people are restive. Yes, this election feels more like a choice between two politicians with competing visions than a transcendent event. But the visions differ enormously, and the stakes are high.
“I don’t think anybody thinks things would be better without Obama, but they are not happy about how things are,” says Spencer Hattemer, who took a hiatus from college in 2008 to work for the Obama campaign as a staff organizer in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, and who recently wrapped up a stint as a volunteer in Colorado. “It was cool to be an Obama supporter in ‘08, and now it’s cool to have a critique: ‘Well, I think he should do this.’ But they’re still going to vote.”
Austin Gilmore, president of the Young Democrats at UNC-Chapel Hill, pushes back against what he divines as a condescending assumption folded into the expectations of lower youth turnout: that those who supported Obama last time naively embraced him as a political messiah, and have since lost faith in miracles, eschewing politics.
“People don’t give young people enough credit,” he says. “Obama didn’t fix every problem that we have in four years, but he did the best he could in terms of dealing with the obstructions of the Republicans in Congress, and the horrible economy he inherited from George W. Bush. A lot of the disappointment comes from people who had unrealistic expectations.”
Direct and amiable, Gilmore boils politics down to execution. He puts stock in the Obama machine and takes comfort that it not only remains, but has been upgraded. Local Democratic operatives have told him “money will be very accessible” for a sustained effort at generating turnout, he says. Canvassers possess detailed voting histories of residents laid out across maps, allowing them to focus the “90-percenters” — those most likely to vote. A program called CallFire allows the campaign to run call centers remotely.
“We’re all used to technology and we can do it fast,” he says. “If you can just get ten energized students, that beats 50 normal people.”
Two weeks earlier, the president had come to UNC, and students stood in line on a drizzly day for hours to see him speak inside Carmichael Arena, the building in which Michael Jordan played college basketball. Three days before he arrived, Gilmore used Twitter to put out a request for 150 volunteers. An hour later, he had more than he needed, he says.
“People are pumped about Obama,” he says.
Still, random conversations with students on the Chapel Hill campus — an architectural study in warm light filtering through trees onto brick — produce the sense that enthusiasm for the president is at best muted.
Four years ago, when he was undergraduate, Thomas Ginn and everyone he knew got swept up in the Obama campaign. “Friends who weren’t even interested in politics were all very intrigued,” he says.
These days, everything looks different. “I’m kind of disillusioned with American politics,” says Ginn, who is about to enroll in graduate school. “It’s all about making the other party look bad, and not what’s best for the country.”
A self-described progressive, he will definitely vote for Obama, but not with pleasure.
“He can’t run on the same inspirational platform of hope and change,” Ginn says. “He can’t possibly say he’s going to change Washington. He can’t use those same inspirational new-kid-on-the-block, let’s-all-do-this-together lines that worked so well last time, because he’s already in office. It’s more difficult to get people excited. He was a celebrity as much as he was a political candidate. He doesn’t have that anymore.”
It's Just So Cool
Obama does have one thing that might provoke enough enthusiasm to extend his presidency: an extraordinary ability to connect with his audience; an ability that sometimes seems to eclipse set-piece battles over issues. This is something the campaign intends to draw on in sending Obama to campuses far and wide.
On issues alone, Joseph Terrell personifies why Obama may be in danger. Terrell grew up in High Point, N.C., the childhood home of jazz legend John Coltrane. He plays guitar in a folk-bluegrass band called the Mipso Trio. Clean-cut, confident and intelligent, he seems like the sort of guy with whom almost anyone might plausibly be friends. In 2008, Terrell took time off from school to go work for the Democratic party. He was supposed to begin his freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill, but getting Obama elected took precedence.
“I felt the same excitement everyone else did,” he says. “I was blown away by him.”
Once Obama took office, Terrell began to see him as a classic politician for whom political expedience dictates all.
“I don’t think Obama’s stuck to his guns on important issues,” he says, rattling off a list — Guantanamo, same-sex marriage, foregoing public financing of his campaign so he can raise unlimited cash. “He’s compromised not as a means, but as an end.”
Terrell is not planning to volunteer this time. When he looks back on his role in the last campaign, he feels used.
“It seemed like he wanted to win in 2008 by energizing young voters, but now he wants to win by not disappointing older white voters,” he says. “I feel taken for granted.”
As North Carolina’s primary approached in early May, Terrell was besieged by e-mails from the Obama campaign reminding him to vote, though Obama was the only name on the Democratic ballot. Terrell and his friends were focused on a different part of the ballot: a constitutional amendment codifying the state’s ban on gay marriage, which passed overwhelmingly. Facebook was jammed with entreaties from students to vote the amendment down, but Obama’s e-mails did not even mention the issue, much to Terrell’s consternation.
“If you’re going to ask for my support, you ought to do it by appealing to my sentiments on issues that I care about,” he says. “I think he’ll be hard pressed to win the state.”
Yet when Obama came to Chapel Hill in late April, joining the comedian and television host Jimmy Fallon for a taping of his show, Terrell went for a look.
There was the president, comfortably hanging out as Fallon displayed a picture of him when he was a student at Occidental College. They joked about his Afro and a jacket Obama said he bought at the Goodwill. Fallon noted the couch covered with a sheet, and the dying spider plant in the corner. Obama talked about the milk crates that must have been there.
Then Obama shifted into serious mode, discussing the need to make college more affordable, while working his own family into the conversation — something every politician tries to do, but rarely as naturally.
“We didn’t finish paying off all our student loans until about eight years ago,” Obama said, drawing a gasp from Fallon. He noted his fight with Congress over the looming increase of interest rates on student loans.
None of this changed Terrell’s intellectual assessment of Obama. But it tapped into something visceral — the thing that Obama is going to need a lot of.
“He was intelligent, clever and totally composed,” Terrell says. “I know I’m only 22, but I still remember well when our president wasn’t any of those things. I left thinking, ‘Man, it’s just so cool that this guy’s the president.’ He’s all the things I would want in a president. He hasn’t done all the things I would like him to do, but he still is that person.”
This story originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.