Presidential election: What impact will young voters have?
A political junkie from a family of staunch Republicans said he supports Obama’s re-election after researching his first term.
“I don’t think he’s done a bad job,” said Josh Duden, a recent Mill Valley High School graduate and self-described moderate Republican. “He’s just had a pivotal term with a lot of difficult decisions to be made.”
Young voters helped put Obama in office in 2008, both by their numbers and margin of support. The U.S. Census Bureau found voters from 18 to 24 years old were the only age group to show a significant increase in turnout for the 2008 election, with 49 percent going to the polls compared with 47 percent in 2006. And 64 percent of those voters supported Obama.
Mike Fonkert was a student at Kansas University in 2008 when enthusiasm for the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama swept the campus.
It was an enthusiasm that began for Fonkert during his days at Tonganoxie High School.
“Actually in 2006 when I was a junior in high school, I went to cafepress.com and bought an ‘Obama for 2008’ T-shirt,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily think it would be 2008, but did think at some point in this country’s history, this guy is going to be president.”
Fonkert, who now works on a Democratic campaign in North Dakota, said he responded to Obama’s charisma, his relative youth, especially in comparison with his opponent, Sen. John McCain, and his promise to end the war in Iraq.
In Douglas County, home of Kansas and Baker universities, the young voter turnout in 2008 re-plotted the usual graph. County Clerk Jamie Shew said graphs of voting percentage by age usually look like the left side of the bell curve with the greater percentage voting as age increases. But in the 2008 election, the graph had a foot at the bottom as voters from 18 to 24 years of age had a 61 percent turnout rate compared with the 50 percent participation rate of those 25 to 40, he said.
In Johnson County, 21,000 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2008 general elections, accounting for just more than 7 percent of the overall vote. That number was actually less than the 2004 general election, when 22,000 of the age group voted.
In Leavenworth County, 1,163 voters in the 18- to 24-year-old age group voted, or just 3.8 percent of the overall vote.
There may have been a less idealistic factor in the young voter turnout and Obama’s success with young voters, said Kansas University political science professor Paul Johnson. The Obama campaign rejected federal funding and the spending restrictions that came with it, allowing it to spend $740 million in the campaign, or more than George W. Bush and John Kerry spent in 2004.
That, Johnson said, allowed the campaign to convince a lot more young people to vote.
Flash forward four years and that campaign spending advantage is gone. Presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is more than matching the Obama campaign’s fundraising efforts.
It is also questionable whether the president retains his popularity with young voters or whether they will turn out at anything like 2008 numbers. Polls show young voters have lost enthusiasm for Obama and the political process.
Owen Lewis, a 2011 graduate of Basehor-Linwood High School who will be the student body vice president of Baker University this year, doesn’t think excitement among young voters, or candidate interest in them, matches that of 2008.
“I haven’t seen as much young involvement as there was in the last election,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be as much marketed toward young voters.”
First-time and college-age voters could be important to candidates who reach out to them because there is a desire to be part of a bandwagon and make a big impact, Lewis said.
That’s a key to politicizing young voters of any voting block, Johnson said. Issues don’t get people to the polls because they know one vote is insignificant and realize there are millions of voters who will support their preferences if they stay home. What gets people to vote is that it is fun or socially rewarding, he said.
“The more people feel others want them to vote, the more likely they are to vote,” he said. “The more people are in a network that sends that message, the more likely they will go vote.”
The Obama campaign invested in personal and network contacts in 2008, Johnson said. It will have to make the same investment to duplicate that year’s turnout in this election cycle, he said.
Fonkert has confidence in the skill and knowledge of the Obama team to once again mobilize young voters in the fewer than 100 days before the election, but concedes it will have to do so in a far different political atmosphere.
“I think the enthusiasm he had then is not matched today in terms of young voters,” he said. “While enthusiasm is great, people seem to be somewhat fickle and the economy is a big part of that.”
Nonetheless, Fonkert said Obama’s campaign has advantages. The president is on the right side of issues important to young people, such as the student loan program and Affordable Health Care Act, which allows young adults to remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26, he said.
And he also retains his charisma, Fonkert said.
Duden experienced Obama’s charisma firsthand when he met the president as a delegate in March to the U.S. Youth Senate Program.
“He’s an invigorating speaker, and he makes you want to believe everything he says,” Duden said. “Everyone in my family and who I’ve met thinks he’s a tremendous speaker, and it absolutely helps him every time he takes the stage.”
Listening to and watching Obama in 2008 made Courtney Wheeler a supporter, and she plans to vote for his re-election less than a month after her 18th birthday in October, she said.
“Watching the debates and listening to him speak, I really agreed with everything he said,” said Wheeler, who will be a senior at Bonner Springs High School. “When he spoke about supporting the middle class or social issues, he did it not in an extremist way but in a way that addressed them more effectively.
“I still think that. I think he’s done a great job.”
It’s not so much what Obama has said, but what he and Romney will say in the coming months that is of interest to Lewis, who said he was still undecided in the presidential contest.
“As a business major, I’m always interested in ideas for the economy and to stir up business,” he said. “It’s kind of intertwined with health insurance. I like tying things together.
“The next president will be in charge of the economy for the next four years. I’m graduating and entering the job market in three and a half years. It’s a big thing for me.”
But Lewis said another factor would be the candidates’ messages and how they were framed.
“I believe voting is very important, but I also don’t like campaigns run on saying what we want,” he said. “Everything is promised to us. It all sounds good, but it never happens.
“I’ll be watching to see what they are really willing to do to get the vote. What they tell people and don’t tell people, makes a big difference in my mindset.”
He will be watchful of negative campaigning, as well. Lewis said he found it unfair when candidates were attacked for a vote they may have made in the past that could have been a small part of some larger bill or a mistake for which they have atoned.
Negative campaigning could be a factor in the race and youthful perceptions, Johnson said. It is expected Romney-friendly super PACs will spend an enormous amount of money as the campaign heats up in key swing states, with much of that being for negative ads against Obama.
That might not drive voters to Romney but could sour some on the political process. Should young voters, who tend to be more liberal, sit out the election, that would be an advantage for Republicans — one Democrats may not be able to match, Johnson said.
“Seniors are the most conservative voting group,” he said. “Democrats haven’t found the recipe to keep seniors from voting yet.”
Andrew Morgan of Baldwin City said he knew young people already are disillusioned with politics. They adopt the familiar arguments that their votes don’t matter or that all politicians are the same, he said.
A recent Baldwin High School honor graduate who will enroll at Benedictine College in Atchison later this month, Morgan estimated there was about a 50-50 split among his high school peers as far as voting. Those who don’t care tended to be those who didn’t get involved in activities, he said.
He plans to vote but is still undecided in the presidential race, said Morgan, who will study sports training at Benedictine and later pursue a post-graduate degree in physical therapy. Issues that matter to him are national debt, the future of the student loan program and the Affordable Care Act.