Social issues prove key to bringing out the youth vote

Thu, Oct 11, 2012, 01:00

SYNDEY SHIVERS (19) could think of more enjoyable ways to spend a midweek evening. But, right now she’s in a windowless basement, cold-calling voters around Virginia to persuade them to vote for Barack Obama.

Some people slam the phone down. Others are in the mood for an argument. Quite a few, though, are willing to engage and talk through the issues.

“The stakes are even higher now than they were the last time,” says Shivers, a politics student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Among young people, there’s still that energy there and the realisation that President Obama is the best candidate for the job.” Across the country, the crowds coming to see Obama may be smaller and the candidate greyer. But college towns like Charlottesville are proving to be crucial in his bid to re-energise a young constituency that was critical in propelling him to the White House four years ago.

But the country has changed since then. The ranks of the under-30s include more than 15 million Americans who, like Sydney Shivers, can vote for the first time. In contrast to the atmosphere of hope and change that defined the last election campaign, those newly eligible to vote have come of age in the worst economic downturn since the depression. With college degrees or, worse, without them, they are entering a far more uncertain world than it has been for many previous generations.

Unemployment, by US standards, is still stubbornly high, the gap between rich and poor is growing, while recent polls indicate that a slim majority define success as “not falling behind”. For many, this represents a shuddering downgrading of expectations.

“Change was possible because you made it possible,” Obama told a gathering of almost 8,000 people at a pavilion near the University of Virginia in recent weeks. “So you can’t get tired now because we’ve got more work to do.” But for many, the lack of meaningful change has been frustrating.

There is a sense among many young people that Obama remains popular not because he has done an incredible job, but because he’s done the best he can under strained circumstances.

Ben Pickus (20), an environmental science student at the University of Virginia, was too young to vote in the last election so he volunteered for the Obama campaign. This time around he he’s still supporting the president but hasn’t given his time to the campaign. “He’s struggled to do the things he wanted to do over the past four years so, yes, it’s been more difficult to electrify people in the same way as 2008, but I’ll still support him, no doubt about it.”

It’s something Republicans have tried to target over recent weeks. Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s hook-line at the Republican National Convention last month was like ice to a sensitive tooth for many Democrats. “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” he said.

Economic issues, though, are not the main issue for many young people choosing to vote for Obama. In Charlottesville – a pretty, compact town with colonial era wooden houses and a sprawling university campus designed by Thomas Jefferson – it’s the social ones that dominate.

Two students, Sana Khawaja (20) an anthropology student from Washington DC, and Lily Burkhalter (21) an English student, don’t believe either candidate will change the economy drastically – but they believe much more is at stake when it comes to abortion rights, gay marriage and personal freedom.

“Our generation hasn’t really known things not to be economically crappy,” says Burkhalter. “So, this is more the norm for us. People of our generation are much more likely to feel strongly about issues like women’s rights and marriage equality.”

In many ways, Obama is being held to the near-impossible standards he set in the last election, when the youthful candidate with the rousing speeches attracted jaw-dropping crowds. But that candidate has changed. He has, perhaps inevitably, lost some of that easy swagger and playful enthusiasm. It’s something that’s been all too visible during his oddly flat TV debate and his often bloodless re-election campaign. Young people are still on his side, just not in the way they were four years ago.

“Four years, ago, Obama really did electrify young people,” says Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “Now, the electricity is out of the system. He will still win over younger voters, sure, but not nearly as many of them.” Polls indicate that support among young people for Obama has fallen since 2008, but he still has a major lead over Republican rival Mitt Romney. Latest data shows that about 58 per cent of voters under 30 currently support Obama, compared to 66 per cent in 2008. As new polls indicate that Romney is edging narrowly in front of Obama, every single young vote will matter.