An electric atmosphere took over the University of New Hampshire last Election Day. Students covered sidewalks with messages in chalk, urging students to vote — and to vote for President Obama. Buses and minivans circled campus, shuttling students to the polls.
The efforts paid off: Obama carried Durham, N.H., by a two-to-one vote, on his way to winning the crucial swing state.
A little more than a year later, the mood has changed — alarmingly, for Democratic Party leaders — in a shift that also is reflected in national polls. Students are increasingly turned off by politics, and by the Democratic Party. Even those who were enthusiastic about Obama say they are jaded by gridlock in Washington, disillusioned by a president they thought would be transformational.
“The public has seen that it wasn’t magic,” said Tyler Gullbrand, president of the UNH College Democrats. “It wasn’t this beautiful Renaissance in our country. . . . I think we expected a lot more — maybe just out of hope.”
Domestic spying by the government, the technological incompetence demonstrated in the launch of the Obama health care marketplace, the continued weakness in the economy — all have conspired to undermine Democrats’ big advantage among young voters, ages 18 to 29, according to specialists.
In a detailed, national poll released last month by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, nearly half of young voters said they would recall President Obama if they could. Only 41 percent approved of the job Obama was doing, an 11-point drop from six months earlier.
It’s a trend line that top Democrats are worried about, and one that top Republicans are trying to exploit leading into the 2014 midterm elections.
“People should be concerned about those numbers,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist. “We’ve got to make sure young voters understand the stakes.”
Many young people were inspired by Obama’s message of hope and change. They believed government could do good, and big, things. And in droves they volunteered, campaigned, and voted for Democrats by margins that had not been seen before, both in 2008 and 2012.
But surveys show that the electorate’s newest generation is disappointed by government’s performance.
“It’s about expectations in terms of the relationship that they have with Washington,’’ said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics. “When they elected President Obama in 2008, young people tell me through focus groups, they were hoping for a better, different, stronger relationship with their government. That hasn’t played out.”
For a generation that relies on smartphones and tablets, the government’s inability to create a functioning website was unfathomable. They also believe the law will bring more costs, worse care, and little benefit to them. Among the 18- to 29-year-olds who don’t have health insurance, fewer than 1 in 3 of those surveyed by Harvard said they are likely to enroll in the health care exchange.
Young voters also are dismayed by the degree to which the National Security Agency is monitoring phone and Internet data. A majority of those surveyed by Harvard said the government shouldn’t collect any personal information to aid national security efforts.
But with Obama not on the ballot, perhaps a more troublesome trend for Democrats is that young voters are less likely to say they belong to the party. They are open to voting for Republicans, they may be drawn to third-party candidates, or they may simply not vote.
“Everyone was really excited about the election and what we could do,” said Maria Carrasquillo, who in 2012 was UNH campus coordinator for Obama’s campaign. “After the election, we realized, ‘It’s not happening. What we wanted to happen hasn’t happened.’ That’s making students back away from actively participating in elections.”
Students are also dismayed by the cost of their education, the debt they rack up, and how little is being done to change the system. “Whenever I walk around on campus and you ask, ‘What is the biggest issue?’ people say, ‘What are we going to do when we graduate?’” Carrasquillo said. “Because we have no money and we have no jobs.”
To keep young voters motivated, Democrats are looking at a range of issues, focusing on things like the high cost of college loans. They also think they can capitalize on enthusiasm for legalizing marijuana.
“Legalization of marijuana is going to become an issue,” Devine said. “I believe it’s an issue that will absolutely activate a voter base, of young people in particular.”
Democrats have not always had an advantage among young people. In 1984, President Reagan won by nearly 20 points among voters 18 to 29. In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost among young voters to George H. W. Bush. Bill Clinton won young voters; Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 had slight edges among young voters, and then Obama created a split like no one had seen before.
In 2008, he won nearly 70 percent of young voters, while John McCain got about 30 percent. In addition to winning the age group by wider margins, the Obama camp also drove more young voters to the polls.
The trend holds up in House races, too. In the 1990s, neither party had a lock on young voters and in most elections they were evenly split. In 2004, Democrats developed an edge that grew over several elections. In 2012, nearly 60 percent of young voters selected a Democrat, while 37 percent said they voted for a Republican.
In the aftermath of the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee completed a report that concluded the party was alienating young voters: “We sound increasingly out of touch.”
The RNC now is trying to capitalize on the youthful shift away from Democrats. It has hired a national youth director specifically to target 18- to 29-year-olds.
The party is trying to create a network of young and minority surrogates, an effort to change perceptions that it is dominated by businesses and older white men.
“The Republican Party is going through an identity transformation and that’s being driven in part by young Republicans,” said Allison Bedell, chairwoman of the Keene State College Republicans. “We aren’t the party of old white men.”
In the past, Republicans often have sent supportive college students to the suburbs, where they would knock on doors of more receptive voters. Now, they’re encouraging conservatives to stay on campus, and canvass their dorms.
In October, the RNC sponsored advertisements targeting young people, one of which ran on “The Daily Show,” which is popular among young viewers.
While those efforts may have an affect at the margins, what will probably have a bigger impact in national elections is how growingly disenchanted youth feel about their government.
“What they think about the role of government is going to be of huge significance,” said Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University who studies the youth vote. “That looked clear in 2008. It seemed like they believed the government could and should do more. Now it’s undecided — and it’s going to have decades of impact.”
“That’s in the balance,” he added. “That’s undecided. And it’s really important.”
Gullbrand, president of the UNH College Democrats, remembers what the 2012 election felt like. But it’s a distant memory.
“Those bus rides, it was like little kids going on a field trip to Disneyland. It was very exciting,” he said. “It was a brilliant day. . . . It’s tough to connect with those emotions now.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.