Running on empty

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On a foggy Friday morning 11 days before the Nov. 6 presidential election, Elizabeth Zhang ’16 trudged up the hilly roads of Media, Pa., a suburb outside of Philadelphia. That morning in an Obama campaign office nearby, she had been handed a list of names with corresponding home addresses, party affiliations and previous indications of support for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in a neat chart. She was now tasked with one of the campaign’s most crucial undertakings: to knock on doors and get out the vote.

But door after door, Zhang knocked to no avail. Most voters were not home, and the ones who were did not take kindly to having yet another canvasser at their doorstep. After more than an hour of trying to engage potential voters, she began to sound weary.

“It’s a difficult thing to run on — picking between the lesser of two evils,” she explained, placing a “Re-elect President Obama” pamphlet in another unavailable voter’s door.

So why was Zhang here? She did not wholeheartedly embrace the President — whom she thought had dropped the ball on issues like the Guantanamo prison and immigration reform — but still she sacrificed her fall break to come canvass for him. “Because it feels better than doing nothing,” she said. “I have a lot of friends and peers who are so disillusioned with the process that they’re not voting at all. I just don’t want to be one of those people.” In around 25 interviews with political activists on campus, students said that the excitement surrounding the current election paled in comparison to the overwhelming enthusiasm that marked the 2008 race.

In a survey of 1,362 Yale College students conducted by the News this week, 80 percent of students who are very likely to vote said they plan to vote for Obama on Tuesday, compared with 15 percent who plan to support his Republican opponent Gov. Mitt Romney. This closely mirrors the results from a similar News survey conducted during the 2008 election, in which 81 percent of students supported Obama and 12 percent preferred Republican Senator John McCain.

On a national level, though, Obama’s support amongst voters under the age of 30 has fallen slightly according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey, from 66 percent in 2008 to 59 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the Republican numbers in this demographic have remained virtually unchanged — Romney’s support only lies 3 percentage points ahead from McCain’s 32 percent in 2008.

“The intensity of disdain for politics has increased among young voters,” said Chrissy Faessen, vice president of communications and marketing at Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan organization that promotes youth involvement in politics. “[Young people] want to be part of something, and they aren’t engaged by all the bickering this time around.”

Despite the diminished excitement, polls show that the youth vote still gives the incumbent a decided advantage. But even among many of those still making phone calls and knocking on doors on Obama’s behalf during this election cycle, enthusiasm for his 2008 candidacy is mixed with dissatisfaction for what his presidency yielded.

THE CANDIDATE OF CHANGE

It was 2 a.m. on Nov. 5, 2008, and a crowd of over 1,000 people had begun to gather on Old Campus. Just under an hour earlier, they had heard that Senator Barack Obama had been named the nation’s president-elect — the man whom many Yalies had helped elect for months. It was a historic moment. Obama was, of course, the first African-American man to be elected President of the United States. But to these young idealists, he was much more than that: He was the candidate of youth, the candidate of reason, the candidate of change.

Almost spontaneously, the crowd burst into a chorus of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They formed a massive circle, holding hands and wrapping arms around one other. The Yale Precision Marching Band even showed up.

“It was an eruption of just relief, emotion and elation. Just thinking about it, just imagining that moment in time is almost hyperbolic,” said David Mogilner ’12, a freshman at the time who is now working on the Obama campaign in Florida. “When it was called that [Obama] was President of the United States, grown men just started bawling. It was that emotional.”

For over a year leading up to Election Day, young politicos on campus were heavily involved in the presidential campaigns. Since the Yale College Democrats does not endorse candidates during primaries, primary-candidate-specific groups began popping up: Yale for Clinton, Yale for Biden and the largest of them all, Yale for Obama. Ben Stango ’11, president of the Yale for Clinton faction and later President of the Yale Dems, said his involvement with the Clinton campaign on campus rendered him a clear political minority.

“It was the closest I’d ever felt to being a Republican on campus,” he recalled. “The vast majority of students were in favor of Obama, and they were pretty darn aggressive about it.”

After the primary, these different factions coalesced into one, and together they created a vast grass-roots campaign, with Dems registering new voters, knocking on other Yalies’ doors, and canvassing in swing states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

“[Support for Obama] combined a lot of issues that we were intellectually interested in with the feeling that something could happen that could create real benefits for people,” said Catherine Osborn ’12, who captured the excitement on 2008 Election Day in a video for the News. “Being involved in that campaign [with the Yale Dems] made me quite literally proud to be an American, and I thought that it was what being an American was, at its best.”

That year, youth enthusiasm across the country was equally palpable. Sixty-one percent of Americans under the age of 30 were registered, the highest number in Pew’s 16 years of polling.

“I think 2008 was a real spike in terms of the right candidate, the message, a historical moment, that all aligned to make it a very attractive and inspiring moment for young people to be involved in politics,” said Jonathan Yang ’13, former president of the Yale Political Union and a member of the Independent Party. “You have less of that in 2012.”

‘A CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY’

Amidst the tide of student fervor for Obama in 2008, several students on campus, in fact, did not support him. Michael Knowles ’12, last year’s president of the Yale College Republicans, recalled sitting in a room in Bingham Hall with 10 other Republicans, drinking and watching Fox News.

“We did appreciate the historic moment, but we were still a little disheartened,” Knowles remembered.

Despite this low point, he said, there was nowhere for Yale Republicans to go but up. In Obama’s first two years in office, while he held Democratic supermajorities in both the House and the Senate, he passed several large stimulus bills that steepened the federal debt — none of which, Knowles noted, garnered Republican votes. Obama pushed the Affordable Care Act through a visibly resistant Congress, a decision that Republicans considered an unnecessary intrusion of federal involvement. And all the while, he didn’t follow through on several of the promises that carried him into the Oval Office, such as environmental regulations, immigration reform and a tax policy overhaul.

For Vice-Chairman of the Yale College Republicans Austin Schaefer ’15, who organized a Yale Republicans canvassing trip in Springfield, Mass. for Sen. Scott Brown, the rhetoric that the president’s campaign has employed reflects a sense of disappointment in his record, even amongst his supporters.

“It was ‘we’re going to turn America around,’ and now it’s ‘it could have been a lot worse, we did OK,’” Schaefer said. “It’s a celebration of mediocrity.”

And yet during the four years of Obama’s presidency, Republicans, both on campus and beyond, seemed much more focused on ousting the current president than finding a suitable replacement.

“That’s been the name of the game since the beginning — it’s been ‘almost anybody but Barack Obama,’” Knowles said, with a chuckle. “You’re talking to a guy who supported two other people for the presidency before Romney.” Knowles had organized both Students for Mitch Daniels and then Students for John Huntsman during the Republican primary.

If Obama supporters on campus are not feeling as enthusiastic about their candidate this time around, the Republicans’ “anyone but Obama” attitude has yielded even less enthusiasm for their standard-bearer. Among those who plan to vote for Romney on campus, 37 percent say they support their candidate very strongly, whereas 62 percent of Obama backers say the same about their candidate. (The News did not ask a comparable question regarding enthusiasm for the elections back in 2008.) And nearly 10 percent of Yalies who identify as “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative” plan to vote for the president, while less than 1 percent of people who identify as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal” plan to vote for the challenger. To supporters like Knowles, though, Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate has transformed this election from a “referendum” into more of a “choice election.”

“I feel invested in Mitt Romney being elected because I think the issues we’re facing as young people are so important, and I believe that Mitt Romney’s vision for America is a better one,” said Elizabeth Henry ’14, chairman of the Yale College Republicans. “Do I think he’s perfect? No.”

‘SITTING ON THE SIDELINES’

Back in the Obama campaign office in Media, Pa., Tyler Blackmon ’16 was preparing to go on a canvassing shift. Before he could walk through the door, he ran into a volunteer. “Can I tell you something that’s worked for me with voters?” she said. “I tell them: You are voting in one of the most important counties in the country. Your vote can decide whether this county swings Pennsylvania for the president, and Pennsylvania can swing the election for him.” Blackmon then went out to knock on several dozen doors, with results similar to what Zhang experienced.

“There’s a lot of people who like to talk about the issues and often spiral into cynicism, but I think if you don’t actually do something about it, then nothing’s going to come of it,” he later said. “A lot of people like to complain — they complain that the president didn’t do enough to solve America’s problems, but then they’ll just sit on the sidelines.”

This tepid response that Blackmon points out is reflected in the current polling numbers. Fewer young people are supporting the president across the country. And perhaps more notably, Pew found that 61 percent of young voters are interested in this election, compared to 75 percent in 2008. Back then, Faessen recalled, the youth vote was split two-to-one in favor of Obama. Now, young voters are in a much different place than they were four years ago, she noted — they’re struggling to find jobs, they’re struggling to pay bills, they’re struggling to thrive in the current economy. Faessen is unsure whether this election will rival the 2008 outcome, citing lower voter registration numbers and lower enthusiasm toward the candidates.

Audrey Huntington ’11 is one of those voters who claims to be “definitely less excited” during this election cycle. In 2008, Huntington left Yale during shopping week of her sophomore fall semester to work on the Obama campaign in Philadelphia because she felt too impatient to just sit by.

“We’ve already elected our first African-American president, and now he has four years of a record to run on,” she explained. “Take drone strikes, for example. After that, it’s a lot harder to rally behind him and say, you know, he’s our man.”

If the enthusiasm for the elections has declined on campus and in America this year, it is not evident from the Dems’ and the Yale College Republicans’ activities. Henry said that the Yale College Republicans has amped up get-out-the-vote activities this year, with its small but dedicated team making calls for Romney and knocking on doors for Republican Senate candidates Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

For their own part, the Dems’ campaign activity this fall is very much the same as four years ago. They held numerous phone banks for President Obama and Democratic Senate candidate Chris Murphy. They have sent canvassing delegations all across Connecticut to campaign for Murphy and twice this year sent over 30 students to Massachusetts to knock on doors for the Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. And whereas Stango said the Dems counted with 150 active members, that figure has swelled closer to 250 this year, according to Nicole Hobbs, the Dems’ elections coordinator.

Over fall break, nearly 40 Dems, including Zhang and Blackmon, traveled to Pennsylvania to persuade undecided voters in some of the state’s most contested counties. Lincoln Mitchell ’15, the Dems’ voter coordinator, came along on this trip. While he was not old enough to vote in the last election, he recalls how emotions, rather than issues, drove many young people towards Obama. And like all emotions, these eventually burned out.

“Unfortunately, I cannot say that my expectations for the Obama administration have been met,” Mitchell said. “I think that he was in a tough situation, trying to navigate between the liberals’ criticism of too much bipartisanship and the conservatives’ criticism of his liberal policies. Granted, I wish that the past four years had done more toward welfare reform, women’s rights, residential segregation and boosting education, but I also recognize that if it took eight years to get America to [how it was before he took office], it will take more than four to get it back on track.”

MAKING THE CHOICE

Just four days ahead of Election Day, Obama’s campaign seems to be headed for the polls with a decided youth advantage. And this year more than ever, the youth vote could be crucial in clinching the presidency. According to CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, there are 46 million eligible voters under the age of 30 in 2012, compared with only 30 million in 2008.

For Tobin Van Ostern, deputy director of Campus Progress, the youth outreach arm of the Center for American progress, this means that the percentage of voters headed to the ballot box can decrease, and there will still be more young people actually voting.

More significantly, some of the other demographics that heavily favor the president — including Latinos and African-Americans — partially do so because their populations skew younger than the overall American populace. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2012 current population survey, nearly one-third of all Hispanic eligible voters are between the ages 18 to 29, compared with 19 percent among whites and 25 percent among blacks.

And over the past two months, Obama has been capitalizing on that youth advantage. During that time, he has visited nine college campuses, while Romney has only campaigned at four. Obama has granted interviews to youth-oriented media outlets such as MTV, People and Us Weekly magazine. MTV posted a statement on its website saying that it had approached Romney for a similar interview, but he declined the offer.

Van Ostern, who served as the director of the Students for Obama division of the 2008 Obama campaign, said that up until recently, the Romney campaign was making a concerted effort to reach out to young voters — much more so than the McCain campaign in 2008. In an effort to attract this demographic away from the president’s camp, this past year Romney has launched a youth advisory committee, held conference calls with young voters and vamped up his tour of college campuses.

“As resources have become scarcer, [those efforts] haven’t quite held up,” Van Ostern explained. “You don’t have to guess who thinks which demographics are important — you just look where they’re spending their money.”

On the other end of the campaign trail, the Dems have kept going with their canvassing efforts. After a long day, Hobbs reclined on her train seat back to Philadelphia. Unlike Blackmon, she had been assigned to a group of previously-designated Obama supporters with the task of turning them out to the polls. She said that, with Obama’s and Romney’s competing visions for the nation’s future, there was an urgent sense among Democrats that they could not lose the election.

“There are 40 kids here who were okay with giving up their fall breaks to campaign for Obama,” she observed. “I think you’re always going to see some apathy. But I do think that students recognize there is still a choice to be made.”

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