DeJanee Fennell hears the excuses.
Young people are apathetic. Young people are sick of politics. Young people have given up.
But Fennell doesn't buy that. The 20-year-old junior at Morgan State University knows President Barack Obama needs the youth vote to win re-election in November, and she intends to help deliver that to him.
"I still believe in Barack Obama," she says. "I think he has my best interest at heart."
Compared with 2008, young, motivated voters like Fennell are becoming a rare commodity. Across the country, voter registration among young people is down from a previous election high that helped deliver the presidency to Obama, when about two-thirds of young voters cast ballots for him. Even in Maryland — where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1 — the number of registered Democrats between the ages of 18 and 25 has dropped by more than 8,000 since June of 2010.
That leaves a critical swath of the electorate up for grabs as presidential campaigns ramp up. The Obama campaign is redoubling its efforts to lure young voters, enlisting people like Fennell, while GOP candidates see an opportunity to draw away some of Obama's 2008 supporters and improve on John McCain's historically poor showing among youth voters.
Meanwhile, support for the president has waned. A December survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics showed Obama's approval rating at a low among voters under 30, down 12 percentage points over the past two years.
"There was enormous amount of hope in Obama in 2008," says Curtis B. Gans, the director for the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, who now sees a lower youth voter turnout as inevitable. "Essentially, you can have the best rhetoric in the world, but if you can't deliver, they won't turn out."
In the battleground state of North Carolina, Democrats have lost nearly 40,000 registered voters between the ages of 18 and 25 since 2008, according to a study compiled by the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning and Engagement. In another competitive state, Nevada, Democrats lost an additional 25,000 registered young voters.
The drop could prove a "major difficulty" for Obama's re-election campaign, the study concluded.
With polls showing Obama in a close race with a potential Republican nominee — and some showing him losing to certain candidates — the Obama campaign has recognized the need to re-energize the youth vote. That's where Fennell, and people like her across the country, come in.
Fennell, a political science major, and her friends volunteer, trying to energize voters who would rather stay home from the polls. They go door-to-door, but also use Facebook and Twitter.
"We go out there and we try to target our local communities," she said. "Once you give the message to someone, they can give the message to someone else."
At the same time that low youth-registration statistics alarm Democrats, the voting bloc represents an opportunity for Republicans. In 2008, McCain, the Arizona senator who was the Republican nominee, performed poorly among young voters.
"McCain only got 32 percent of young voters: That's an all-time record low," says Peter Levine, director of the Tufts University center on civil engagement. "There's room for Republicans to make some inroads. Young people in this era are good at organizing themselves around identity. Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. I can see Mitt Romney getting broader young support if he campaigns to them."
Romney supporter Dave Meyers, 22, of Ellicott City, says he doesn't think his candidate can capture more of the youth vote than Obama, but knows Romney can do better than McCain. He says the Republican Party should focus more on fiscal issues if leaders want to capture more of the youth vote.
"People my age don't care about social issues, or are on the other side of them," he says." But I know plenty of people who graduated from college who can't get a job. They went to vote for Obama trying to change all that. Now they're saying, 'This isn't what we wanted.'"
Meyers recently traveled to New Hampshire, where Romney won the GOP primary vote.
"I saw a lot more young people than I thought working for his campaign," he said. "What will really help him is there are a lot of young people disaffected with everything that's going on in politics. They'll be ready to try something else."
After a victory in the GOP primary in South Carolina, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has emerged as a top challenger to Romney. But some experts, and even some of his young supporters, doubt their candidate can catch on among younger voters.
Shelby Emmett, 26, of Charles Village, is reluctantly backing Gingrich, since Herman Cain dropped out of the race. She says she likes Gingrich's frank talk about the economy and Social Security. But she's not so sure her candidate can pull young voters away from Obama.
"He's wasn't my first choice," she said. "But he's not holding back and he's not politically correct. … No, I don't think a lot of young people will go for him. A lot of young people are naïve."
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign didn't return calls.
Youth enthusiasm at a low
The youth vote isn't down only among Democrats.
There are now about 400 fewer registered young Republicans since mid-2010 in Maryland, and the youth vote during the early GOP primaries was low. Turnout in New Hampshire was only 15 percent of young voters. In the Iowa caucus, the youth turnout was only 4 percent. In South Carolina's primary, 8 percent of young voters turned out to the polls.
Among young voters, in each of those states, Texas Rep. Ron Paul was victorious.
Investment analyst Mayur Thaker, 26, of Gaithersburg, was a self-described "big supporter" of Obama last election, but says the president's support of bailouts for rich bankers and campaign contributors turned him off. He traveled to Iowa to help get out the vote for his new candidate.
"I thought he was a true progressive in terms of civil liberties and peace," says Thaker, who now backs Paul. "I basically became disillusioned."
Rob "Biko" Baker is the executive director of the League of Young Voters, a nonpartisan organization that helps mobilize young voters in cities with large minority populations in battleground states. He says he admires a lot of what the Paul campaign is doing.
"A lot of people are cynical about the political process. We're not," he says. "We believe a lot of important stuff goes on that young people can influence. People call young people apathetic, but if you look at both sides of the aisle, you see young people involved. You see young white people getting involved in Ron Paul's campaign. On the Democratic, progressive side, Occupy is a young person's movement. There's a new breed of activist out here that's young and more sophisticated."
Baker's group helped get many Obama voters to the polls in 2008, he says, and believes it's a mistake for politicians to write off young voters.
"Ron Paul is kicking [hindquarters] in these early states because young people are motivated to work for him," Baker says. "People don't understand the strategic-ness of young people. Just by turning out we can change the election."
He says if the economy doesn't improve, and the jobless rate doesn't go down, Obama could be in trouble.
"I'm really seeing the frustration in the people that just last year would have turned out," he says. "It's a scary prospect that people aren't going to have a job in future years. It's hard out here."
Levine points to the Obama campaign's youth strategy in 2008: Directly appeal to young voters, give them unscripted positions of responsibility in the campaign, and promote a message of inclusiveness and tolerance on social issues.
"Just asking young people to vote. That works," Levine says. "If you're doing canvassing, target young people. There's a good return on investment. Obama understood that in '08."
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