In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama enjoyed a huge edge over John McCain among first-time voters, helping the Illinois senator to a four-year stint at the White House. But is that excitement still there, and will it help the president gain a second term?
“I think it’s safe to say there’s a little less enthusiasm for Obama than there was in 2008, but that’s always the case when you’re supporting an incumbent,” said Skidmore College professor Ron Seyb. “There is an enthusiasm gap because the energy for the people supporting the challenger always seems to be stronger, and the incumbent always has his liabilities. People naturally have more ambivalence about the incumbent. It’s the difference between promise and performance.”
One person hoping to see a serious reduction in Obama’s edge among first-time voters — it was 69 percent to 30 percent in 2008 — is Nick D’Angelo, president of the Union College Young Republicans. A resident of Carmel in the lower Hudson Valley and a junior at Union, D’Angelo was a big fan of McCain in 2008, but he was too young to vote.
“I was very enthusiastic about McCain and excited about the 2008 election,” said D’Angelo, “so it’s going to be very nice to be able to vote this year. And this time, the race is only a couple of percentage points either way, so it’s much more competitive. In 2008, you knew by this time that McCain needed a miracle to win, so this fall has been pretty exciting. I would say that there has been some lively discussion on campus.”
At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, Aaron Shifreen, a native of West Hartford, Conn., and a senior, remains a loyal follower of the president, but he concedes that the enthusiasm gap this election seems to be a real issue for Obama supporters.
“I was too young to vote in 2008, just by three months, and I was upset about it,” said Shifreen, the Skidmore College campus coordinator for Obama for America. “But I watched all the debates and I was very excited about the election, and I can tell there’s definitely not as much buzz as there was in 2008. That volunteerism, that spirit isn’t the same as it was. This year’s it’s been very difficult to get people to volunteer.”
What seems to be replacing the buzz for Obama this year is the excitement over the closeness of the election and the disenchantment young people have for most politicians.
“The thing I hear people saying on campus is how they hate the partisanship,” said Charlotte Lehman, a native of Geneva in central New York and a junior at Union. “We’re all so disillusioned by what goes on in Washington that when the Democrats and Republicans agree to hold events together locally, it’s very successful. People appreciate that we may disagree, but we still get along with each other and can work together.”
Lehman is living proof of that. The president of Union’s Young Democrats, she has been dating D’Angelo since they met on campus two years ago as freshmen.
“I hang out with a lot of Republicans, and Nick hangs out with a lot of Democrats,” said Lehman. “When we registered new people for the election this year, most of them signed up as independents. I think the people here are pretty objective. It seems to be a pretty moderate campus.”
Zoe Oxley, a political science professor at Union, said the enthusiasm young people had for Obama in 2008 on campus is not being repeated in 2012.
“Obama’s campaign was a historic one, obviously, and there was also the newness of the social media approach his campaign used, which isn’t so new anymore,” said Oxley. “That, and because some of the shine is off Obama, I think the enthusiasm is a lot lower this year. I don’t know if that will actually be reflected in the turnout, but I have fewer students coming to my office to talk about the election. They were excited about it. There were student-initiated events around campus in 2008, either at lunch or in the evening, about the issues relating to the election. There’s much less of that activity going on this year.”
In Babette Faehmel’s U.S. Politics and Government class at Schenectady County Community College, there were 10 new registered Democrats, six independents and just two Republicans. Although it’s only anecdotal evidence, Faehmel said that seems to be the way the campus skews, and while she has noticed a decrease in excitement over Obama, she feels that has mostly to do with a developing frustration with politics and politicians.
“I think it’s more than just the incumbent problem,” she said, referring to the lack of excitement over a possible second term for Obama. “I think it has a lot to do with political alternatives, political courage and political vision. When was the last time we had a serious discussion about poverty? There are today more holders of graduate degrees on food stamps than ever, and student debt is at an all-time high. If the two parties are no longer capable of giving the voters a real choice, then it should not surprise anyone that there is an enthusiasm deficit.”
Samaadda Hall of Albany, a student in Faehmel’s class, said his parents voted for Obama in 2008 because he was an African-American, and while they’re going to vote that way again on Tuesday, he isn’t so sure what he’s going to do.
“I’ve done a lot of research on both of them, and I may not vote for either one,” he said. “I’m looking for someone who can get something done, and I don’t know if either one of them can. It seems like a waste of time.”
Engaging in the process
Other students, however, were looking forward to their first vote and felt like they had plenty of good reason to enter the election booth and pull a lever or two.
“I was voting for Obama all the way because I grew up Democrat, and I know that he’s someone who will represent the lower and middle class better than Romney,” said Amar Mohabir of Albany.
“My parents don’t like Obama and I don’t like Romney,” said Jacob Barker of Schenectady. “He would abolish a woman’s right to an abortion: He would take it away, and I believe a woman has the right to do anything she chooses with her body. I don’t think other people, especially a man, should be in charge of what she can do.”
“I was kind of stressing out about the lack of enjoyable candidates, and now this whole election has become a thing to worry about,” said Brianna McKeon of Rotterdam. “All the Republican candidates made me bang my head against the wall. And now with Romney I actually do find some things favorable about him. But then he’ll say something, like opening airplane windows, and you just can’t believe he said it. I like Obama, but I think on some things he’s too lenient. I want a candidate where I can say, ‘yeah, I really agree with that.’ ”
According to 19-year-old Danielle Bubniak of Amsterdam, most people her age aren’t interested enough in the election.
“I think it’s kind of scary looking at some of my friends,” she said. “They think that politics don’t matter, and that’s kind of sad. Their generation will have to deal with it, and they’ll be the first ones to complain about it.”
At Skidmore, most of the campus is made up of Democrats, according to Shifreen, but with New York expected to go Democratic anyway in the election, it’s hard to get people very enthusiastic.
“I wouldn’t say people have grown weary or become disillusioned; it’s just that we were expecting an immediate change, and in the world of politics it’s hard to make that happen,” he said. “Plus, Obama is going to carry New York, so what can we do? What I’m doing is trying to get people to volunteer for the phone bank and call people in the swing states. What we need is to make sure Democrats in those states get out and vote.”
At Union, D’Angleo concedes that his presidential choice won’t win in New York, but there is other work that can be done.
“I’m not working that much for Mitt Romney, but there are several local elections and congressional races that we’re very excited about,” he said. “It’s important to talk about them, and at Union people are open to talking about issues and opposing views. There’s a misconception about college professors that they’re all leftist Socialists. Well, even if some of them are, they’re very open to discussing things. People from opposite sides of the spectrum can still get along and talk to each other here, and that’s great.”
Young Conservatives, according to D’Angelo, have a different look than their older counterparts.
“I think our generation’s view of Conservatism is very different from the previous form,” he said. “We’re still very strong on austerity and being disciplined, but we’re lenient on social issues. We have a strong idea that government shouldn’t have a role in telling people who they can or cannot marry, or telling a woman what she can and can’t do. That’s obviously very different from the extreme Republican view.”
Regardless of the partisanship in Washington and all of the disenchantment first-time voters may feel about their elected officials, Seyb says that many are still engaged in the whole process.
“We had an event last week, just seven different faculty members talking about the issues, no one with any real cachet, and it’s midterm week and we were all thinking, ‘Well, who’s going to show up?’ ” said Seyb. “At Skidmore they’re almost all Democrat, so they’ve all been locked in already for who they’re going to vote for. But we ended up with more than 100 students there on a Tuesday night. They sat there in those uncomfortable chairs and stayed to the end. The students were obviously looking for a real substantive discussion on the issues and more information than they’re getting from the media or from watching the debates. They were really interested, and it was great to see that they were much more engaged in the election than I thought they were.”
Even high school students, according to Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake senior Scott Cooper, are feeling both excitement and dissatisfaction with the political world.
“I registered as an independent because I don’t like the two political parties and I’m not completely set on anyone yet even though I’m leaning toward Obama,” said Cooper, who just turned 18. “Some kids think it’s all a waste of time, but there has been a lot of talk about it, and a lot of kids give their opinions on Twitter. There’s a lot of trash-talking going on.”