Where's Team Obama?

Millennials who voted for him the first time are decidedly less enthusiastic this year

January 03, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

In a span of four years, Christopher Ivan has gone from cautiously optimistic to downright pessimistic about the future of the country.

The 26-year-old University of Chicago graduate student voted for Barack Obama and the idea of change in the 2008 presidential election. Since then, Ivan has criticized the president for not vigorously defending a major health care bill and appointing people who were affiliated with federal bailouts to various posts. Ivan also has joined the Occupy Chicago movement about economic inequality.

At this point, he is undecided about who will get his vote this election and whether he'll give Obama another shot. He might boycott altogether.

Ivan and other young voters helped usher Obama into the White House with a 51 percent turnout in 2008. But four years later, heading into a 2012 election with ever-changing GOP front-runners, polls show the group's public support for the president has diminished. While that doesn't necessarily mean young voters aren't engaged, voting experts said, it remains to be seen whether the political activism seen in the Tea Party and Occupy movements will translate into voter turnout later this year. The Republican caucuses kicked off Tuesday in Iowa.

Obama's approval rating among Millennials—the 18- to 29-year-olds who were a major base for him in '08—has slipped, but young adults say they're more likely to vote for Obama than a Republican candidate, according to at least two recent polls.

With unemployment being the top issue for Millennials, some young voters don't see much being done to help out-of-work Americans at a time when budget bickering overshadowed job creation in Washington, said Matthew Segal, co-founder of Our Time, a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing the rights of young Americans. The result? "It completely dismantles our faith in our political leader and, for that matter, in our political system," he said.

Enthusiasm among young voters was high in 2008 because Obama's campaign encouraged participation, his personality resonated with them and the opportunity for change was exciting, said Peter Levine, director of Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

But the high level of enthusiasm was unsustainable, he said, noting that doesn't necessarily mean a weak turnout this year.

Kristopher Anderson, 33, says he will vote for Obama again. Still, he sees how voters have become frustrated with how things have progressed given the unemployment rate and the fighting in Congress. Plus, some voters may have had too high of expectations, he said.

"I don't think at this point people still see him as the great hope and change agent he presented himself to be," said Anderson, a county government analyst who lives in Avalon Park. "I think people will see him as the better of the two options."

While Obama has spearheaded several initiatives popular with young voters—allowing them to remain on their parents' insurance until age 26, repealing "don't ask, don't tell" and introducing breaks on student loans—he faces an uphill battle.

"I do think it's going to be tough," said Jaleesa Smith, 21, president of the Columbia College Chicago chapter of the College Democrats of America. "If you have enough people that are willing to come together like they did in 2008 and be focused and driven and be serious enough, if they're in favor of the things President Obama has pushed through or has done, I think he'll do great," she said.

As chairwoman of the Cook County Young Democrats, Desiree Kettler's focus is on energizing young voters, building momentum and reminding them of the effect they can have on the upcoming election, she said.

"We do have a voice and if we throw that away, we give away our right to complain later," Kettler, 29, said. "We have to stay engaged in order to effect change, and change takes time."

Recent polling done by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found Millennials are less engaged in politics now than they were in 2007 when party nominations were sought.

A recent poll from Harvard's Institute of Politics found at least two-thirds or more of young adults say they are not likely to volunteer on a campaign, donate money to one or attend a rally for a candidate.

"The key findings in our survey suggest that Millennials are prepared to show their frustration not through strong support for the eventual Republican nominee, but rather by punishing President Obama and the Democrats by not engaging, volunteering or voting in the same volume that they did in 2008," Harvard's report said.

Experts said that doesn't tell the entire picture when it comes to young people being involved.

When the flourishing of non-campaign political activism around the Occupy and Tea Party movements is factored into the equation, Levine said, it might be a "pretty energized year."

lvivanco@tribune.com | @lvivanco

RedEye Chicago Articles
|
|
|