COLUMBUS, Ohio – It was Halloween night, and the Obama campaign operation was in full motion on the campus of Ohio State University. A smiling 17-year-old student in a headscarf was holding a sign, “Gotta Vote,” even though she was too young to do so, as dozens of students boarded a chartered bus taking them to a precinct to cast the first ballots of their life.
“It definitely seems like a myth that students have stopped caring about elections,” said Christian Watson, an 18-year-old music education major from Novelty, Ohio.
The Obama campaign is hoping to debunk that myth on Election Day but, for a president who has tried more than any other to cultivate support on college campuses, he is facing significant hurdles. Four years ago, he was a candidate with a lofty vision, one whose campaign represented epic change, not only in policy but in what it would mean for a new generation to vote the first black president into office.
Now, the job market has hit young people particularly hard, and Mitt Romney is doing plenty to drive that point home. With about 42,000 undergraduate students, Ohio State is the third-largest university in the country; it draws students primarily from the state, a crucial battleground in this election. Activity here illustrates the strengths and the struggles for each campaign.
If four years ago the Obama campaign treated young voters as agents of a generational change, it is now targeting them as an interest group with clear concerns — on gay marriage, on health care, on abortion and contraception. And while their older brothers and sisters may be struggling with the realities of a soft economy, today’s college students haven’t yet entered the job market. They have little memory of Obama as the insurgent outsider and instead are identifying with Obama the incumbent.
“The previous generation was ironically the George W. Bush generation: They hated him. Two-thirds voted against his party when they got a chance,” said Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University who studies the youth vote. “This generation is more influenced by Obama and is a little bit more ambivalent.”
Lacey Ross, an 18-year-old from Dayton, is typical of many Ohio State students. Although reared in a Republican family, she was intrigued by Obama four years ago. She still supports him now, citing health care, abortion, and gay marriage as driving issues.
“I’m really passionate about a president who will not rule but will be among the people,” she said. “People who need help are not freeloaders.”
Still, Ross said, nearly half of her housemates are uninterested in the election. And a singer in her women’s glee club is consistently decked out in Romney gear.
A small band of Romney supporters set up on Wednesday afternoon in the Oval, the busiest intersection on campus. They handed out free T-shirts (“Things haven’t worked out so well,” and “Yes. This really happened,” with figures showing a growing national debt). They yelled out, “Free hot chocolate! Free hot chocolate!”
Several stopped, eager to connect (or to grab the free garb; one student needed a Kleenex; he took a T-shirt instead).
“We’re letting people know, if they are conservatives, they’re not alone,” Bobby Seitz, a 19-year-old freshman engineering and economics major from Broadview Heights, Ohio.
But the Romney supporters say their focus is not on converting college voters — something they view as fruitless — but instead on recruiting volunteers to head to the suburbs and persuade other voters. Romney rarely shows up on campuses, leaving that to his much younger running mate, Paul Ryan, and even some of his supporters don’t want him to come.
“If he came to campus, it would be a negative,” said Sam Zuidema, a 20-year-old history and political science major who is active in the Ohio State College Republicans. “People would protest. It just wouldn’t be worth his time.’'
“The Democrats have this territory covered. We don’t waste our energy on campus,’’ he added.
Romney’s advisers here see little usefulness in the type of busing and early-vote efforts that the Obama campaign has been doing.
“I don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze on that,” said Scott Jennings, who is Romney’s state director in Ohio. “You can spend all day long with these vans. We tend to take a much more targeted approach. We know who we need to vote, and we know how to communicate with them.”
Increasingly, those voters are of modest means, without a college education.
Only 3.5 percent of college students had been contacted by the Romney campaign, compared with 11.5 percent who had been contacted by Obama’s campaign, according to a recent survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonprofit research group based at Tufts.
But of young voters without college experience, 6.6 percent said they had been contacted by Romney’s campaign, compared with 5.8 percent for Obama. College-educated voters tend to be more likely to vote and more informed about the election, the survey found.
Four years ago, Obama got nearly two-thirds of the vote from ages 18 to 29. In several states, including North Carolina and Virginia, that was the difference in the election, according to Levine.
“It was an unprecedented split and it made the 2008 election very generational,” he said. “Young people were really an important part of Obama’s coalition, I suppose second only to African Americans.”
The difference, he said, wasn’t so much overall turnout; about the same number of young people voted as they had in past elections. The margin, however, was remarkable. While Obama made a concerted effort to mobilize young people, Levine said, “Republicans did an atrocious job to get young people to turn out.”
One factor working for the Romney campaign is the number of young people who are struggling economically. Nationally, unemployment in September was 13.4 percent among those ages 18 to 29, compared with an overall jobless rate of 7.8 percent. Those numbers are declining, which Obama’s campaign is quick to point out, but not fast enough, as Romney’s campaign often notes.
But many students seem reluctant to blame Obama for the economy; Democrats are working to drum up enthusiasm to override any latent concerns.
On a cold, wet Halloween night, as the students at Ohio State boarded the Obama campaign bus, the music was turned up loud, blasting “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “People get Ready.”
“Are you guys excited to vote!?!” a campaign worker said. The bus cheers.
“It wasn’t exciting at first,” said Watson. “But things have started rolling. It’s back.”Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.