Youth Voters: Can Obama Re-Energize Them?

By Bianca Brooks

This story also aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Over the past few weeks, President Obama has been heavily courting the youth vote, visiting college campuses in swing states around the country. At the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, there’s a big push for youth involvement. There are 644 delegates under the age of 35, and even an official youth engagement coordinator. Polls show young adult support for President Obama at around 55%, slightly down from when he was elected in 2008.

At the first Youth Press Conference of the DNC, I asked the question on everyone’s mind: “What is dampening young adults’ enthusiasm for Obama?”

“I have to disagree with you when you talk about a lack of enthusiasm on college campuses,” said Alejandra Salinas, president of the College Democrats of America. “I want to give you tangible examples of that not being the case. We of the organization of college Democrats have seen incredible growth since 2008,” she said.

Salinas told me that her group keeps adding chapters in key states such as Florida and Ohio. She’s scheduled to be a speaker at the convention, and is passionate about the president. After the press conference, she pointed to his policy change on student loans that helped her.

“If interest rates had gone up to 6.6 percent, that would be tens of thousands of dollars more I would have been paying in interest alone if that policy had passed. That’s just a personal example how I am better off,” said Salinas.

Salinas also says she’s grateful to be staying on her parents insurance thanks to healthcare reform. And in her opinion, President Obama still has the “cool factor” and points to his now famous slow jamming the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

The Obama campaign is also using social media to reach out. They say they sent out more tweets in the weekend before the DNC than the entire election season in 2008. But 20-year-old Jean- Patrick Grillet, a volunteer at the convention, questions whether that’s a good strategy. When North Carolinians were voting on expanding a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage earlier this year, it became all the buzz on social media.

“And so everyone is getting on Facebook and that’s all they see. And they say to themselves, well I don’t have to vote, my 500 friends are going to vote for that. So I don’t have to go out today. And then Amendment 1 passed, and it was a really, really sad day,” he said.

Grillet is a young white male voter. Analysts say his demographic is the most unpredictable this election. He says he’s looking for honesty and strong stances. He watched the Republican Convention in Tampa to see if the Republicans could sway him. But he didn’t feel like they stood firm on issues he cared about. At the end of the day, it was President Obama’s stand on gay rights that won him over.

“I think I was undecided up until a few weeks ago. I was kind of holding out for Ron Paul to win the Republican ticket because I don’t consider him a Republican. I consider him more Libertarian third party. Now that it’s officially Romney against Obama, I’m definitely going Obama.”

Most of the people I talked to were supporters of President Obama. But according to some people, the President still has work to do to convince the remaining up-in-the-air young voters.

When you stop young people outside of official youth events at the DNC, some express fears of lost momentum, compared to 2008. 19-year-old Rachelly Then sees it in her social circle.

“The number of people I know my age that are going to vote is way less than the people my age I know that are not going to vote,” said Then.

Then’s friend 21-year-old Merancia Fils adds that there is a lack of urgency among her peers, and a sense that political issues don’t affect them yet. She says President Obama has to convey to them that he needs them.

“I feel like once he makes us feel like there is a need, then we’ll get more involved. We don’t feel like there’s a need,” said Fils.

Young voters making up close to 20 percent of the electorate. Analysts say they are still an important block. And in a close election, President Obama could need their votes to win.

That story was produced by Youth Radio.

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