College senior Brian Schreiber works as a janitor until 1 a.m. most nights, cleaning day-care centers so he can send home money to pay his father's hospital bills.
He's 21 years old and $22,000 in debt from his studies at the University of New Mexico. His father, an environmental chemist, is bankrupt because his insurance didn't cover a recent surgery. His mother teaches high school students who can barely read.
"I look at the country and think, 'Wow. The government really doesn't care,' " Schreiber said, sounding more defeated than angry.
As voters in 24 states go to the polls today, many express a deep pessimism about America's future. A Gallup poll last month found 73% of adults were dissatisfied with the state of the nation. A recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll reported that 44% of Americans expected no real changes in Washington, no matter who's elected.
In more than two dozen interviews on the campus here -- in a state with a hotly contested Democratic caucus -- students largely shared that gloomy outlook.
But in a paradox that intrigues analysts -- and could well shape the election -- they still feel inspired to vote.
"They do think America's going to hell in a handbasket," said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington. "But they have some feeling of hope, some feeling of idealism."
Sophomore Dillon Fisher-Ives put it this way: "As hopeless as voting might seem, not voting is worse."
Youth turnout, especially in the Democratic race, soared beyond all expectations in early primaries and caucuses. Turnout rates for the under-30 crowd tripled in Iowa and Florida, compared with 2000. In New Hampshire, a striking 43% of eligible youth made it to the polls, up from 28% eight years earlier.
Today's youth are more engaged in civic life than students of previous generations; they're more likely to volunteer regularly, for instance. And they're passionate about causes such as global warming or the bloodshed in Darfur.
"Basically, they care," said Peter Levine, who directs the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
"They then have to decide, is voting a useful vehicle? And they debate that. It's not a slam dunk for them," Levine said. "But as long as it's a competitive race and candidates are out making an explicit appeal to them, they're ready to hear that pitch."
To make that appeal, candidates have tapped tens of thousands of "friends" who join their campaign through online sites such as Facebook and MySpace. They've sent rappers, TV actors and pro athletes to campaign for them.
Republican Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has his five sons blogging for him. Sen. John McCain, Republican from Arizona, often hands his microphone to passionate young activists at campaign rallies. On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York sends her daughter, Chelsea, to speak at college sororities and hip downtown bars. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois stages huge campus rallies; he recently drew 18,000 at the University of Denver.
Students nationwide respond to the attention with enthusiasm -- and creativity.
In Southern California today, college students plan to stage "Text Out the Vote" parties (to text-message reminders), Super Fat Tuesday festivities (complete with "Vote!" wristbands and Mardi Gras beads) and an election carnival, with games such as "Pin the Face on the Candidate" and "Voting Twister." Similar events are planned across the nation.
Here at the University of New Mexico, veteran political organizer Dustin Taylor, 27, said he registered more than 100 new voters in two days last week -- more than he registered during the entire 2006 election season.
Behind that energy, however, is a deep well of doubt.
"I can only think of bad things when I think of the government," said Joseph Colbert, 19, a biochemistry major. "Lazy comes to mind."
His friend Fisher-Ives, 19, interrupted: "I'd say lost."
"That's a good one right there," Colbert said. "Superpowers don't last forever, and the U.S. is on the decline. It's inevitable."
The distrust of government that many students here express is rooted in their personal experiences.
Ana Vigil, 18, works as the weekend receptionist at an urgent-care clinic, and has to turn away patients if they don't have insurance. She can't understand why politicians haven't been able to fix this problem when voters time and again put healthcare coverage among their top priorities.
"They hear what we have to say, but they don't listen," said Vigil, who hopes to become a doctor. "It turns me off politics."
Vanessa Rice's disillusionment stems from watching nearly all her friends from rural New Mexico drop out of college one by one, convinced that even a degree won't help them better their lives.
"I see so many people who think 'I don't matter,' " said Rice, 20, a chemistry major. "They don't see themselves as part of the bigger picture. They don't feel they can have an impact or really play a part" in mainstream society.
Rice plans to finish her degree, but she increasingly feels that disconnect as well: As soon as she graduates, she hopes to leave the U.S. for good. She'd like to live in Italy.
Both Democratic candidates have worked hard to overcome the cynicism of Generation Y. Clinton has promised to set up a team of government bloggers to explain where tax dollars go and what the bureaucracy does. Obama has vowed to make government cool again.
That pledge drew a snort of derision from Nick Atencio, 20, a biology major. A new administration might try to change Washington culture, but the old guard is bound to resist, Atencio said.
He looked toward Lucas Gallegos -- "my one liberal friend" -- for another opinion.
Gallegos, 21, nodded assent. "The government's too messed up for it to change that much," he said.
Nonetheless, the friends both plan to vote. "You still do hold out hope that [politicians] will do what they say, and that they can make a difference," Atencio said. He looked down, almost embarrassed to be caught with a flicker of idealism.
His friend Ashley Enriquez, a business major, put down her bag of chips and spoke up, as if reassuring him: "It's our chance to have a voice."
Even Schreiber, the student who works nights as a janitor, plans to go to the polls. He complains that America has stopped listening to the middle class and the poor: "We've lost the [ideal] that all the people have something to say." Government, he says, seems to be run by, and for, the wealthy.
But he can't help thinking it's his duty to do what he can to make his voice heard. It may be "false optimism," he said, "but I still think, someday it's going to get better."