As polls continue to report a drop in interest among young voters, the atmosphere on college campuses like USC speaks to a different trend.
“You’re voting for Romney?” an outraged Kevin Li yelled across Trousdale Parkway. “No way man, Obama all the way!”
“Hey, Romney’s pretty damn good!” his friend Bernie Yang volleyed back.
Though most recent statistics show a drop in young voter interest, walking around USC in the final days of the presidential campaign unearths more exchanges like this than analysts might expect.
The most recent Gallup poll of voters ages 18-29 showed only 58 percent of those registered intend to vote, as opposed to the 78 percent who said they would definitely vote in 2008.
And the youth vote could be a critical factor in determining the winner of the election. With President Barack Obama leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the popular vote by only 1 percentage point, an uptick or downturn in youth voters could sway the results dramatically. With the election only days away, Obama leads Romney among young voters by 19 percentage points, according to a study by the Harvard Institute of Politics.
But for a youth culture that polls as particularly uninterested in politics, college students seem to put on a convincing act — on almost any day in October, voter registration tables, political clubs and student activists could be found encouraging voter registration and turnout on campus.
Li, a sophomore majoring in computer science business administration, said his peers fall into two dramatically different groups: the activists and the apathetic.
“There are a lot of apathetic people, who say, ‘Screw it, it’s just politics,’ and don’t want to be a part of it,” Li said. “I don’t think those people will turn out to vote because they don’t see a point.”
Some tie this perception of the election as unimportant to a lack of excitement about Obama’s first term. Dotty Lynch, professor of public communication at American University and political consultant for CBS News, analyzed the trend toward apathy as young voters response to feeling let down.
“I think that the Obama administration has been a bit of a disappointment to some young people who really believed he could make a massive change in how Washington worked, and that hasn’t happened,” Lynch said. “In 2008 he was new on the scene, he was an excited candidate, and I think people were excited because of the news of him and the promise of him.”
Ange-Marie Hancock, a professor of political science at USC, saw the financial climate as a cause of some apathy toward the election, especially in college students. As voters enter their 20s and begin searching for jobs and financial independence, she said, the economy — and the perception of the government’s inability to improve it — could also discourage voting.
“There is a lot of youth unemployment,” Hancock said. “I think people are a little bit disaffected in that they went to college they spent all this money and now they don’t have a job.”
Coming off the 2008 election, what Hancock called the “high-water mark” in youth voting in recent history, voters said they just do not feel the same sense of urgency.
“There [is] definitely going to be a lot of voter participation from our age group, but it isn’t the same as coming off the 2008 election where there was a lot of hype,” said Connor Schroeder, a junior majoring in environmental studies.
Though some experts label young voters as unlikely participants, many voters in this demographic still express strong opinions about voting.
“This is a really important election because it could be Obama’s second term and he is such a milestone president,” said Amy Schmidt, a sophomore majoring in English. “People will be passionate about making that happen or changing that, and either way, I think it will be just as big.”
Other students said interest in the election has not waned, either. Hailey Gill, a senior majoring in kinesiology, said the sheer number of Facebook statuses she read about the debates show that her peers will vote.
“For the last debate, I was at the gym and people stopped in their tracks to watch it on the big TV,” Gill said. “College students seem interested in the election, and there might not be as high of a turnout, but there will still be significant turnout.”
Lynch attributed the recent increase in interest that Gill and Schmidt experienced to the closeness of the presidential race.
“I’ve been talking to the Obama coordinators in varying states, such as Ohio, and they have said the recent polls showing the election is close have given them more volunteers, have made more people interested in the election and have gotten them more involved,” Lynch said.
With just days remaining until Election Day, the population of young voters appears split. Like the election itself, the participation of young voters will have to be decided at the polls.