CHAPEL HILL — As they waited for President Barack Obama to speak, Bridget Walsh and Lila Fleishman struggled to find the right word to describe the difference in his first campaign and now four years later.
The UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen were too young to vote in 2008, but they were big Obama supporters, magnetized they say by his star quality.
“Since 2008, I think you can really say it’s ...” Walsh started, pausing to think.
“Fizzled,” Fleishman inserted.
“Yes, since 2008, I think you can really say a lot of it’s fizzled,” Walsh concluded.
Once Obama took the stage, the capacity crowd of 8,000 cheered loudly, but it didn’t compare to his appearance on campus four year ago before a much larger crowd. And interviews with more than a dozen other college students like Walsh and Fleishman indicate that support for Obama, though strong, is infused with less enthusiasm.
With youth voting registration diminishing, the Obama campaign in North Carolina – a major battleground in the 2012 election – faces a tough task as it seeks to capture the fickle youth vote that flocked to the polls in record numbers four years ago. A Harvard Institute of Politics national poll released Tuesday shows Obama with a 43 percent to 26 percent advantage against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney among 18- to 29-year-old likely voters. A recent Public Policy Polling survey in North Carolina found Obama with a 28-point lead in this age group, an improvement from his numbers in the state in November 2008.
The 2008 exit polls indicated Obama took 66 percent of the under-30 national vote. But the voter landscape in North Carolina is changing
An analysis of state voter registration data from November 2011, showed about 48,500 fewer voters aged 18-25 compared to November 2008, according to a Tufts University report. Obama’s margin of victory in the state is a scant 14,177, and about 80 percent of those lost young voters were registered Democrats.
The Chapel Hill event launched a two-day, three-college tour – with an appearance Tuesday on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” included – aimed at rejuvenating these voters’ enthusiasm.
As he asked the students in the UNC crowd to use Twitter and Facebook to reach out to their elected officials on the topic of student loan interest rates, Obama hit a point he wants to remain true in November: “Your voice matters. Stand up. Be heard. Be counted.”
At the speech in Carmichael Arena, home to the women’s basketball team, students tried to generate chants of “O-bama” but couldn’t spark the energy of the full crowd. The roughly 40 minute speech ended with such loud applause Obama had to shout his final lines, but a brief chant of “four more years” didn’t gain widespread support.
Still, those are the words the Obama campaign wants to hear as it puts a concerted effort into reinvigorating young voters.
Now he’s the incumbent
The campaign began voter registration drives on college campuses in North Carolina more than six months ago, and in February, national campaign advisors and actress Gabrielle Union hosted a packed forum at nearby N.C. Central University.
“It may be unrealistic for Obama to expect the same level of engagement from 2008,” explained Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor who researches North Carolina politics. “But clearly his campaign senses in a close election the votes of college kids might make a difference.”
But it’s a double-barreled challenge: energize today’s college students, only a few of whom voted in 2008, and re-energize the former college students who helped put Obama into the White House but now face a get-less-than-you-dreamed job market and heavy student loan debt.
The dichotomy is visible in the Harvard poll, which showed Obama’s lead is 23 percentage points for likely voters age 25 to 29 but only 12 points for those under 24.
“Obama was a new sensation,” Guillory added. “Now he’s the incumbent president. The incumbent president has baggage.”
Republicans suggest young voters are now less enamored with Obama because as they graduate from college they face a dismal job market. About half of new graduates will remain jobless or underemployed.
Garrett Jacobs, the chairman of the UNC College Republicans, said the job market is a major factor prompting some students who once favored the Democratic candidate to consider Romney.
“(Obama) was new. He was novel. He was exciting in 2008,” he said. “Now we’ve seen what he’s done ... and the direction of the country is still not good.”
Unlike four years ago
Obama visited the UNC-Chapel Hill campus four years ago this week as he battled Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He spoke to 18,000 at the Dean Dome, home to the men’s basketball team, a far larger crowd than in Carmichael on Tuesday. Jacobs called it a “very serious sign of decreased excitement” but Obama supporters point to differences in the circumstances.
Damon Neanover, 22, was a freshmen in 2008. “It was a big moment at UNC. The campus went crazy for (Obama),” he recalled.
The political science major from Jacksonville said he remembers students driving rickshaws offering rides to early voting stations and the incessant campaign volunteers working to win voters in The Pit at the center of campus.
The enthusiasm has “definitely died down a little bit,” said Neanover, a 2008 Obama voter. “Initially, he had an aura about him that collectively gathered people.”
In Raleigh, Noah Nunn, a junior at St. Augustine College, said he also senses a change in the presidential campaign this year. But he is trying to tell his friends and other voters his age not to lose interest.
“It’s definitely going to be more difficult this year,” he said. “(Obama’s) advisers will need to be more strategic if they were depending solely on likeability.”