b-youth-voters 2-p-hairston

b-youth-voters 2-p-hairston (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / January 13, 2012)

DeJanee Fennell hears the excuses.

Young people are apathetic. Young people are sick of politics. Young people have given up.

But Fennell doesn't buy that. The 20-year-old junior at Morgan State University knows President Barack Obama needs the youth vote to win re-election in November, and she intends to help deliver that to him.

"I still believe in Barack Obama," she says. "I think he has my best interest at heart."

Compared with 2008, young, motivated voters like Fennell are becoming a rare commodity. Across the country, voter registration among young people is down from a previous election high that helped deliver the presidency to Obama, when about two-thirds of young voters cast ballots for him. Even in Maryland — where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1 — the number of registered Democrats between the ages of 18 and 25 has dropped by more than 8,000 since June of 2010.

That leaves a critical swath of the electorate up for grabs as presidential campaigns ramp up. The Obama campaign is redoubling its efforts to lure young voters, enlisting people like Fennell, while GOP candidates see an opportunity to draw away some of Obama's 2008 supporters and improve on John McCain's historically poor showing among youth voters.

Meanwhile, support for the president has waned. A December survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics showed Obama's approval rating at a low among voters under 30, down 12 percentage points over the past two years.

"There was enormous amount of hope in Obama in 2008," says Curtis B. Gans, the director for the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, who now sees a lower youth voter turnout as inevitable. "Essentially, you can have the best rhetoric in the world, but if you can't deliver, they won't turn out."

In the battleground state of North Carolina, Democrats have lost nearly 40,000 registered voters between the ages of 18 and 25 since 2008, according to a study compiled by the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning and Engagement. In another competitive state, Nevada, Democrats lost an additional 25,000 registered young voters.

The drop could prove a "major difficulty" for Obama's re-election campaign, the study concluded.

With polls showing Obama in a close race with a potential Republican nominee — and some showing him losing to certain candidates — the Obama campaign has recognized the need to re-energize the youth vote. That's where Fennell, and people like her across the country, come in.

Fennell, a political science major, and her friends volunteer, trying to energize voters who would rather stay home from the polls. They go door-to-door, but also use Facebook and Twitter.

"We go out there and we try to target our local communities," she said. "Once you give the message to someone, they can give the message to someone else."

GOP opportunity

At the same time that low youth-registration statistics alarm Democrats, the voting bloc represents an opportunity for Republicans. In 2008, McCain, the Arizona senator who was the Republican nominee, performed poorly among young voters.

"McCain only got 32 percent of young voters: That's an all-time record low," says Peter Levine, director of the Tufts University center on civil engagement. "There's room for Republicans to make some inroads. Young people in this era are good at organizing themselves around identity. Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. I can see Mitt Romney getting broader young support if he campaigns to them."

Romney supporter Dave Meyers, 22, of Ellicott City, says he doesn't think his candidate can capture more of the youth vote than Obama, but knows Romney can do better than McCain. He says the Republican Party should focus more on fiscal issues if leaders want to capture more of the youth vote.

"People my age don't care about social issues, or are on the other side of them," he says." But I know plenty of people who graduated from college who can't get a job. They went to vote for Obama trying to change all that. Now they're saying, 'This isn't what we wanted.'"

Meyers recently traveled to New Hampshire, where Romney won the GOP primary vote.

"I saw a lot more young people than I thought working for his campaign," he said. "What will really help him is there are a lot of young people disaffected with everything that's going on in politics. They'll be ready to try something else."