When Max Blum, a senior majoring in cinema and television production, cast his first presidential ballot in 2008, enthusiasm was high among his friends.
“I felt really proud,” Blum said. “It was a great chance to cast my vote in something that was so monumental in American history.”
Galvanized by the ideas of “hope” and “change,” young voters turned out in droves to the polls in 2008, electing then-Sen. Barack Obama to fix up Washington.
This year, however, Blum said the ratiionale driving youth voters to support Obama has changed. Blum said younger liberal voters seem less motivated this year by idealism and more by a dislike of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
“Instead of focusing on the positive aspects of the two campaigns, it’s a really negative person versus someone who’s already there,” Blum said.
Though Obama leads Romney in polls tracking youth support, the backing he once had in 2008 has dissipated. Earlier this month, Harvard’s Institute of Politics released a poll that showed Obama with a 12-point lead among likely 18- to 24-year-olds. Back in October 2008, that same poll showed the president with a 26-point lead over then-Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain.
Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, attributes this increase in support for Romney in part to the Republican Party’s efforts in 2012 to mobilize voters through campus organizations or independent partisan groups — a big change from 2008.
“The Republicans in ’08 did a pathetic job trying to mobilize young people, as in they didn’t show any sign of having a good strategy for that or even having anybody assigned to work on it,” Levine said, “and they even went at trying to make a negative issue out of Obama’s youth support.”
Logan Morris, who graduated in May, voted in his first presidential election as a California resident in 2008. For Morris, much of the excitement was generated by a sense that he could make a real difference with significant issues, such as Proposition 8, a statewide initiative to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage.
“We [got] to vote for the first African-American president and this important issue of human rights,” Morris said. “It was part of the excitement of getting to vote on real, important issues.”
With enthusiasm waning among many of Obama’s younger supporters in 2008, the president’s campaign has focused on energizing that particular segment of the electorate.
Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the campaign has targeted younger voters by talking about issues of interest to them, such as Pell grants.
“One of the most important objectives for the Obama campaign is finding a way to remotivate younger voters,” Schnur said. “There is no way to recreate the excitement of 2008, but they are working very hard to reach out to young people to try to increase their level of interest and involvement.”
Jennifer Massey, a junior majoring in history and a member of the USC College Republicans, said that when she voted in 2008, the Obama campaign mobilized young voters by touting the campaign’s historical significance. From walking around on campus and talking to friends, Massey said she believes first-time voters are less excited because 2012 does not bear the same immediate historic importance.
“They are excited because they have the opportunity [to vote] finally, but they are not excited about the candidates,” Massey said. “If they were voting in 2008, I think they would have definitely been excited.”
Dietram Scheufele, a communication professor at the University of Wisconsin, said the lack of enthusiasm does not mean younger voters who backed Obama in 2008 will cast their ballots for Romney this year.
“For him it’s not a matter of the youth vote going conservative, it’s a matter of whether they will turn out or not,” Scheufele said.
Given the overwhelming support Obama received from younger voters in 2008, Schnur said it would be difficult for Romney to persuade these voters to swing toward the Republican Party — a shift that would typically only happen over several election cycles.
“This is a voter group that has been very very heavily supportive of Obama,” Schnur said. “Moving a lot more of them from one party to another is a pretty difficult challenge. When you generally see a demographic voter group switch from one party to another it’s generally the result of a more gradual process.”
The poll released by Harvard’s IOP also sheds light on the degree to which youth voters support the two candidates. The results found that of the young voters who support Romney, 10 percent are more likely to say they are “definitely” voting Romney than younger Obama supporters said.
USC College Republicans President Maddy Lansky said she has seen more enthusiasm within her group during this election cycle. Lansky also said more students are comfortable saying they support Romney and the Republican Party.
“I’ve noticed in the past young people aren’t as comfortable saying they fall to the right or support a Republican candidate,” Lansky said.
Ultimately, experts said it is difficult to determine whether 2012 will have a large impact the long-term party affliation of a first- or second-time voter. Levine said he believes that in 2008, younger voters were not necessarily being loyal to the Democratic Party, but instead testing a more left-leaning political view.
“I think they were trying out a liberal, progressive world view because the exit polls showed that they were very enthusiastic about general involvement in the economy,” Levine said. “However, I don’t think it solidified because I think four years later the proportion of people who have those positive government views has declined.”