A voter gets up after filling out a paper ballot in Lancaster, Ohio. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

College students played an important role in the 2008 presidential election and helped Barack Obama win the White House. They held voter registration drives on campuses around the country and volunteered to knock on doors to enlist more supporters. Their enthusiasm seemed almost contagious and many older adults, especially the students’ parents, said they were inspired by the younger generation’s idealism and political activism and ended up voting for Obama too.

The brutal, take-no-prisoners, 2012 presidential campaign could not have been more different. The recession, foreclosure and banking crisis, unemployment and layoffs, and, hyper-partisan battles in Congress, and in state legislatures, have taken a toll on Americans sense of amity. Anger, disappointment, and recrimination are the order of the day. Obamania? Eh, not so much.

And what of those inspiring young people who commandeered the nation’s conscious? Pollsters and pundits say they are no longer a major political factor. They say that young voters are as disillusioned as the adults; disenchanted with Obama and uninspired by Romney. A recent poll by the  Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that young voters were “significantly less engaged in this year’s election than at a comparable point in 2008.”  

That’s not true for first-time young voters, at least according to reporter Glynn Hill, a sophomore at Howard University’s School of Communications who will vote in his first president election on Tuesday. His story about young voters is featured today and is among several student stories about the presidential race that The Root DC will publish over the next few days.


When Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president four years ago Howard University was among the area colleges brimming with frenzied excitement. Like their counterparts around the country, Howard students reveled in being part of a singular historical moment in which idealistic young voters had played an important role.

While students from George Washington University celebrated Obama’s win on the streets near the White House, Howard students flooded the U-Street corridor, which was once a hub of black-owned businesses and, like the historically black Howard, has a long and storied past.

Political pundits and recent polls have made much about the decline in youth enthusiasm in this year’s presidential election but for first-time young black voters, including those at Howard, the enthusiasm level is anything but waning. As Election Day draws near these students can’t wait to be part of another potentially historic event – the reelection of the first black president.

“I’m more excited because I can actually participate this time,” says Yanique Richards, a political science major at Howard.

She says she’s thrilled that she can still be connected to history while taking part in the national political exercise that is the election.

“The most important thing is to have your voice to be heard,” she says. “You can change the course of four more years.”

While Obama’s election was a moment of national pride and a symbol of racial reconciliation for many Americans, for African-Americans it was something more, an affirmation of the past struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and an opportunity to express their racial pride. So even though black college students may come out big for Obama, whites and other groups of college students may not. Disappointed with the lagging economy, high unemployment rate, and dismal job outlook for college graduates, the luster of the 2008 election and the Obama presidency, has dimmed in their eyes.

In 2008, 18- to 29-year-old voters pulled the lever for Obama over Republican nominee John McCain by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a CNN exit poll. However, experts suggest that this time around, youth voters will not support the president the same way they did four years ago.

“Some young people are disappointed,” says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. “The disappointed youth include two different groups: very liberal young people who are disappointed about policies on Afghanistan, single-payer health care, and climate change, and moderate youth who just want to see the economy improve.”

CIRCLE conducts research on civic education in schools, colleges, and community settings and on young Americans’ voting habits and political participation. A survey conducted by the center asked a sample of young people for their top issues of concern. The top three were jobs and the economy, rising tuition and interest on college loans, and the national debt. These factors have dampened enthusiasm about the election among college students worried about paying for school and finding a job when they graduate.

 “When we asked a sample of young people their top issue this summer, 33 percent said jobs and the economy, 11 percent chose the cost of college and student loans, and 10.5 percent cited the federal budget deficit,” says Levine.

Young Americans have traditionally been the least likely to vote compared to all other age groups. Only 22 percent of college students say they are politically active, according to a poll conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

So why is the youth vote even important? Because young voters in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, and Virginia can potentially affect the outcome of the race.

Trey Grayson, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, points out that young voters were and still are an important part of President Obama’s coalition.

“He won a few states [based] on the increase of young voters in 2008,” Grayson said. "If you lose some votes in all of these close states, it can be enough to swing such a close election.”

President Obama won’t likely have to worry about winning Washington, D.C., a reliable democratic stronghold. His campaign can count on Howard students coming out for him.

“There is more hype than before,” says Khadijah Nimrod, a senior international business major who ran the “iCount” voter registration drive on campus on September 25th. “I’m excited as a first-time voter. We are a different generation this time.”

Still, some students are worried that with the election so close Obama might lose.

“I’m anxious and nervous but excited. It is a pivotal election,” says Lindsay Robinson, a senior and an economics major who voted for Obama in 2008. She believes the candidates’ different views on women’s rights and student loans make this election more personal for her as she prepares to enter the job market.  

Linzi Jack, a recent Howard graduate from New Orleans, says issues such as women’s rights, abortion, contraception coverage, and equal pay affect her more than they did as a freshman in 2008 and are more real to her now that she is older. She was eligible to vote in 2008 but did not.

“I care more about what’s going on this time,” she says.

Chisom Uzosike, a sophomore majoring in public relations, says the sense of excitement among young people, though strong, is not the same this year because 2008 was so historic but he believes the election it is just as important and plans on voting for Obama.

“If you can vote and you don’t, you have no right to complain,” Uzosike said.

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