College students react to first presidential debate

Johns Hopkins University seniors, from left, Archibald Henry, of New York; Nicholas DePaul, of California; and Anna Kleinsasser, of Baltimore, along with others, watch the first presidential debate at one of the campus dining halls.
Johns Hopkins University seniors, from left, Archibald Henry, of New York; Nicholas DePaul, of California; and Anna Kleinsasser, of Baltimore, along with others, watch the first presidential debate at one of the campus dining halls. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Like most students gathered at the Johns Hopkins University on Wednesday to share tacos and watch the first presidential debate of the general election, senior Nicholas DePaul walked into the room as a supporter of President Barack Obama.

But 30 minutes into the debate — as Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney hashed through their plans to reduce spiraling budget deficits — DePaul seemed deflated by the president's performance selling his economic vision to the country.

"I'm afraid to say Romney is probably winning with the public because people react more to emotion in these kinds of things," said DePaul, a Californian who is studying political and environmental science and who spent much of the debate monitoring a political fact-check website on his laptop.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the things Romney is saying are not true," he said.

With early voting already under way in states like Ohio and Iowa and Election Day less than five weeks off, the highly anticipated first debate was an important opportunity for both campaigns to sell their plans to address the nation's high unemployment. The issue is of particular concern to students who are preparing to enter the workforce.

Young voters played a big role in Obama's 2008 victory, but enthusiasm among 18- to 29-year-olds has ebbed since then — in part because of the down economy. A Gallup poll this year found that 58 percent of young people said they are definitely likely to vote, compared with nearly eight in 10 who offered the same response four years ago.

About 100 soon-to-be voters — mostly Democrats — sat at small tables in a sparsely decorated student lounge, watching the debate on a large projection television. The bipartisan event was organized by several political groups on campus.

Hovering in the back of the room, a small group of Republicans were identifiable only by a single Romney sticker hanging on the side of a water bottle at their table. Conor Hammonds acknowledged they were outnumbered — just as Romney supporters would be on many college campuses — but said he felt the former Massachusetts governor was speaking with far more specificity than Obama.

"To be honest, I was kind of scared coming into it," said Hammonds, who is from New York. "But I think Romney's holding up really well."

Olivia Spector, a freshman from New York, said she agreed the economy was an important factor for her and her peers, but said she felt Obama made the more compelling case — particularly as he defended against attacks from Romney on investing in clean-energy jobs.

"He just looks more confident — he's not frazzled," Spector said. "The economy is definitely a concern, but I don't think, necessarily, that Romney would do a better job."

Similar watch parties played out across the state, though Democratic-sponsored events appeared to be more organized. Democrats held a party in Baltimore that also included phone banking for candidates and appearances by Sen. Ben Cardin and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes.

"We have to guard our progress," Cummings told the crowd of about 200 who gathered for the event. "It is not about the next election, it is about the next generation."

At Loyola University Maryland, student government leaders and the school's athletic programs sponsored a joint, nonpartisan watch party focused on getting students registered to vote. A large, handwritten sign plastered on the wall of Reitz Arena noted the high number of young people who turned out in 2008.

"Registration is key to turning out college students," it read.

About 100 students registered to vote at the event.

Both campaigns have targeted young voters. Obama has tried to draw a clear contrast with Romney over education, and student loans in particular. Obama has argued that the budget crafted by Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, would force hundreds of thousands of students out of the Pell Grant program for poor and middle-class families.

Romney counters that students have been hurt chiefly by Washington's inability to address high unemployment.

T.J. Kelly, a 21-year-old Loyola senior who helped organize the debate watch party, agreed that the economy was an important factor for many students making up their mind on whom to vote for. Kelly, a marketing major from Long Island, said he is leaning toward supporting Obama but that his decision could change.

"Finding a job is terrifying," he said. "I feel like now people don't have the same feel of change that was there in 2008."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.