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The Baltimore Sun

Jan. 25: The young voter

DeJanee Fennell hears the excuses.

Young people are apathetic. Young people are sick of politics. Young people have given up.

The thing is: Fennell doesn't buy that.

The 20-year-old junior at Morgan State 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, statements like Fennell's are growing increasingly rare. 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. And 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.

It's a crucial time for those who seek to capture the youth vote, experts say. 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.

"There was enormous amount of hope in Obama in 2008," says Curtis 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 (CIRCLE). 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.

Even in Maryland — with its overwhelmingly Democratic-minded population — the number of registered Democrats between the ages of 18 and 25 has dropped by more than 8,000 since June of 2010.

With polls showing Obama in a close race with a potential Republican nominee — and some showing him losing to certain candidates — the Obama campaign, nationally, has recognized the need to re-energize the youth vote. That's where Fennell, and people like her across the country, come in.

A political science major, Fennell and her friends volunteer for the president, and try to energize voters who would rather stay home from the polls. She says they try to reach people door-to-door, but also through 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."

GOP opportunity

At the same time that low youth-registration statistics present a warning call for Democrats, the voting bloc presents an opportunity for Republicans. In 2008, GOP nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona performed historically poorly among young voters, receiving only about one-third of the youth vote.

"McCain only got 32 percent of young voters: That's an all-time record low," says Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE. "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."

Questions to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign about attempts to mobilize youth voters went unanswered.

Youth enthusiasm at a low

The youth vote isn't just down 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 wasn't exactly impressive. Turnout in New Hampshire was only 15 percent of young voters. In Iowa, before that, 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 non-partisan 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 ass in these early states because young people are motivated to work for him," Baker says. "People don't understand the strategicness of young people. Just by turning out we can change the election."

He says if the economy doesn't improve, and the jobless rate 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."

Obama strategy

Levine says there are two categories of people who have left the Obama camp: liberal voters and non-ideological voters who simply wanted change.

"The first group doesn't think Obama has fought enough for the things they wanted," such as global warming, a single-payer health care system and ending the war in Afghanistan, Levine said. "The second group voted for a change and they've been disappointed about the pace of change. They might consider voting Republican."

Levine says the Obama campaign can reignite the youth vote if it follows the plan that worked 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."

Johns Hopkins political scientist Lester Spence says he believes some disaffected white voters could vote Republican, but young black voters will either vote for the president or stay home.

To reinvigorate the youth vote, Obama should focus on ways to make America's economic system a place where economic climbing is possible through hard work, he said.

"He needs to take the energy that the Occupy folks revealed not just for symbolic change but to make America the kind of place where a working-class kid can raise themselves up," Spence says. "It's not that place anymore."

Obama campaign spokesman Frank Benenati says he believes the youth vote will turn out for the president again, once they take a look at his record of accomplishments, including ending the Iraq war, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and expanding health care coverage.

"His accomplishments and his vision for the future of our country — where everyone gets a fair shake and are given the tools to succeed — stand in stark contrast with Republicans," Benenati says. "Just as young people came out in huge numbers to organize and lead a movement together in 2008, their energy will help build this campaign again in 2012."

For Fennell, that young people turn out is essential.

"We have to start off young and get involved," she says. "It's the best thing for people my age. We're going to be the ones running this country next."

Luke.Broadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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