Key 2012 Demographic: 30% of
Young Voters Still Undecided
By Susan Saulny
Progressive America Rising via The New York Times
Maria Verdugo, a 20-year-old graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, barely remembers the presidential election of 2008 -- the one that spawned a youth movement that was singular in its scope and political effectiveness -- except for "something about Obama saying we needed a change."
These days, Ms. Verdugo is so busy working to pay off her student loans that she has not decided whether to register "as a Democrat, a Republican, or what," she says.
Chad Tevlin, 19, a student trying to pay for college by cleaning portable toilets in South Bend, Ind., cannot recall if he registered to vote at all. "Pointless" is how he describes politics.
And Kristen Klenke, a music student in central Michigan, has decided to skip this election altogether. "I know it sounds horrible," said Ms. Klenke, 20. "But there's a lot of discouragement going around."
In the four years since President Barack Obama swept into office in large part with the support of a vast army of youth, a new corps of young men and women have come of voting age with views shaped largely by the recession. And unlike their counterparts in the Millennial generation who showed high levels of enthusiasm for Mr. Obama at this point in 2008, the nation's first-time voters are less enthusiastic about him, are significantly more likely to identify as conservative and cite a growing lack of faith in government in general, according to interviews, experts and recent polls.
Polls show that Americans younger than 30 are still inclined to support Mr. Obama by a wide margin. But the president may face a particular challenge among those voters ages 18 to 24. In that age group, his lead over Mitt Romney -- 12 points -- is about half what it is among 25- to 29-year-olds, according to an online survey this spring by the Harvard Institute of Politics. And among whites in the younger group, Mr. Obama's lead vanishes altogether.
Among all 18- to 29-year-olds, the poll found a high level of undecided voters -- 30 percent indicated that they have not yet made up their mind. And turnout among this group is expected to be significantly lower than for older voters.
"The concern for Obama, and the opportunity for Romney, is in the 18- to 24-year-olds who don't have the historical or direct connection to the campaign or the movement of four years ago," said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics.
Experts say the impact of the recession and slow recovery should not be underestimated. The newest potential voters -- some 17 million people -- have been shaped more by harsh economic times in their formative years than anything else, and that force does not tend to be galvanizing in a positive way.
Indeed, for 18- and 19-year-olds, the unemployment rate as of May was 23.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those ages 20 to 24, the rate falls to 12.9 percent, compared with the national unemployment rate for all ages, at 8.2 percent. The impact of the recession on the young had created a disillusionment about politics in general, several experts suggested.
Today, specifically, the youngest potential voters are more likely than their older peers to think that it is important to protect individual liberties from government, the Harvard data suggest, and less likely to think that it is important to tackle things like climate change, immigration reform or health care. Mr. Tevlin, for instance, found the Supreme Court's upholding of the Affordable Care Act troubling. "I don't think the government should force you to buy anything," he said.
Brandon Dennis is one voter who says he is open to someone new. Mr. Dennis, 20, comes from a black family of Obama supporters. But when he came of age to vote, he registered as an independent. He is listening to Mr. Romney's appeals. "This time, it's more about what you're going to do for the economy," said Mr. Dennis, a chemistry major at Clark Atlanta University.
First Published 2012-07-02 00:22:09