College Democrats Face Uphill Battle To Reignite Youth Vote Excitement For Obama

President Barack Obama shakes hands during campaign event at Waterloo Center for the Arts, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, in Waterlo
President Barack Obama shakes hands during campaign event at Waterloo Center for the Arts, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, in Waterloo, Iowa, during a three day campaign bus tour through Iowa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In 2008, Barack Obama captured the White House thanks in large part to the support of young voters. College Democrats -- an official arm of the Democratic National Committee, with thousands of students enrolled in chapters at schools across the country -- were integral to the Obama campaign's success, providing volunteers to man phone banks and help with get-out-the-vote operations. In the end, 66 percent of voters under age 30 voted for Obama -- a larger percentage than any other age group, according to the Pew Research Center.

Over the past four years, however, enthusiasm among young voters has faded significantly. As president, Obama has failed to push through reforms that many young people longed for: The military prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open, the war in Afghanistan drags on (as does the war on drugs), and the partisan gridlock in Washington persists. Tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires continue to exist.

Today, Obama is facing an engagement gap as he campaigns for reelection. Though Obama leads Mitt Romney 58-34 percent among voters aged 18-29, according to a Pew survey conducted in July, young voters are much less enthusiastic about the election this year when compared to 2008.

Now, as students prepare to return to school, College Democrats are fighting an uphill battle to reignite the excitement young people felt four years ago.

"It is sobering compared to 2008," said Ben Cohen, a graduate of Kansas University and president of Kansas Young Democrats. Cohen works in food service to pay the bills, while taking a few courses at Washburn University. "There was a much different sort of energy that year, based on the promise of Senator Obama and eight years of frustration directed at George W. Bush."

"This year there is a renewed energy," he said, "but a much more mature one."

The Obama campaign declined to comment on strategy. But many College Democrats members say that in contrast to 2008, when the Obama campaign embraced a 50-state strategy, the campaign this year is focusing more on key battleground states.

As a result, young voters in some states are feeling left out.

"Before, you had this sort of inclusive nature of the Obama campaign," said Matthew McNey, a student at University of Maryland Baltimore County and president of the Maryland College Democrats. "This time there's much more exclusivity as to who is considered a priority and not a priority." Maryland, a strongly Democratic state, doesn't seem to make the cut, he said.

"The thing is, we are sort of getting passed over in Maryland and states like us," McNey said. He said that the Obama campaign has not contacted his group this election cycle.

"I don't think the campaign understands how important states like Maryland actually are, in terms of getting out the vote in Pennsylvania and Virginia," McNey said. "I don't think they care either."

In other states, College Democrats are less inclined to make the president the centerpiece of their efforts. The Missouri College Democrats, for example, has decided to focus on local races rather than the presidential election.

"We are more focused on Missouri campaigns," said Alexandria Witt, communications director for the Missouri College Democrats and a senior at Truman State University. "We have a Democratic governor and a Republican state legislature, and so we're really just trying to sway those people who vote for Nixon to also vote for Democratic candidates in other statewide offices."

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) is one of the most popular governors in the country, with 53 percent of Missourians saying they approve of the job he is doing, according to Public Policy Polling.

Obama, by contrast, is far less popular in the state. His approval rating among Missourians totals just 45.7 percent, lower than his national average, while 52.1 percent of Missourians disapprove of the job he is doing.

"It’s impossible to ignore the fact that 2008 was an historic year regarding participation in the presidential election," Witt said in an e-mail. "While we are still seeing lots of interest and motivation among students, some students are turned off by the partisanship displayed in Congress."

In Kansas, where polls show to be leaning in favor of Romney, the main goal of College Democrats has been to chip away at the Tea Party majority in the state legislature. Cohen said that he and Kansas state representatives have been working closely with moderate Republicans in hopes of breaking the hold that Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and Tea Party conservatives have on the statehouse.

"Kansans worry about jobs. They have been dwindling rapidly, and as much as President Obama has done nationally, it hasn't helped much here," said Cohen. "That said, a lot of that can be traced to the mismanagement of Gov. Brownback, something which more and more Kansans are realizing."

Zak Newman, a student at Yale and president of the Connecticut College Democrats, said the group plans to send students to Massachusetts to help get out the vote for Elizabeth Warren's Senate campaign this fall.

Still, some College Democrats said that young voters are overlooking the successes of Obama's first term. "I think that the president has delivered for young people across the board," said Paul Murre, president of the California College Democrats and a senior at San Francisco State. "He expanded the Pell Grants program. He ended 'don't ask, don't tell,' a discriminatory policy in our military."

"He came out supporting gay marriage. He ended the war in Iraq. He passed health care reform -- these are all youth-based accomplishments," Murre continued, "so the idea that the president hasn't performed for young people is absolutely ridiculous."

Taylor Barnard, president of College Democrats of Massachusetts and a junior at Tufts University, agreed . "He's committed to investing in education and jobs -- these are things that ultimately affect students in a very tangible way. He's also shown his support for students by sticking up for other things we care about, such as LGBT equality and clean energy."

"Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has time and time again shown his absolute lack of concern for issues important to students," Barnard said. "I think the choice is clear."

But while College Democrats like Barnard may still be fired up for Obama, Barnard recognizes that getting his fellow students to flock to the polls again may be a challenge.

"A lot of people predict that maybe the youth vote, or youth involvement period, in the election won't be as high in 2008, and that numbers may be low," Barnard acknowledged. But, he said, "we see this election is just as important as 2008, if not more important."