ELMHURST, Ill. — What a difference four years can make.
In 2008, college campuses were filled with campaign posters and political rallies — and frenzy. Remember "Obamamania?" This year, it's difficult to find a college student who's truly excited about the presidential race.
"Politics has gone back to that thing you don't want to bring up," says Abraham Mulberry. He's a freshman at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago who's trying to start a club for young Democrats.
Last election, his campus had an active Students for Obama chapter, organized well before the election. But this time, there's nary a campaign placard, for either President Barack Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
"I wouldn't say the election is the No. 1 hot-button issue here," Mulberry says, disappointedly.
Granted, you don't see many signs of campaign enthusiasm in the neighborhoods that surround his campus, or elsewhere for that matter. But it's telling that, on many college campuses across the country — where, in 2008, then-candidate Obama's messages of "hope" and "change" easily took hold — the mood is markedly more subdued.
"Certainly, some (young people) have stopped believing," says Molly Andolina, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago who tracks young voters. "Maybe that's inevitable. For structural reasons, it's easier to offer hope and change as a candidate, than as a president."
Excitement was so high, it really had nowhere to go but down, she says. This time, there's also no obvious chance to make history, as there was when students helped elect the country's first African-American president.
"For young voters, it was like going to Woodstock in 1968," says John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
Now like a lot of Americans, they're more worried about the economy and finding jobs. Voter ID laws in some states, which ban or restrict the use of student IDs at the polls, also are causing confusion on campuses — at a time when students are already weary and cynical about political bickering in Washington.
"Lots of people thought President Obama could go in and break gridlock and that didn't happen," says Ethan Weber, a senior at Miami University in Ohio, who'll be graduating in December. "That's the scariest thing to a lot of young people — that nothing is going to happen."
In 2008, Weber cast a half-hearted vote for Republican John McCain, certain Obama would win. This time, he's voting for Romney and sees the election as a "toss-up."
He is still in the minority in the 18- to 29-year-old age group, according to polls. Young people are leaning strongly Democratic, as they traditionally do, and favor Obama by a wide margin — though some pollsters say the youngest new voters are showing signs that they may buck that trend.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month found that 61 percent of registered voters in the 18-to-29 bracket support the president, compared with 30 percent for Romney.
In 2008, young people ended up voting for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin, with just over half of U.S. citizens, ages 18 to 29, casting a ballot in 2008. Though older generations are still more likely to vote — about two-thirds of citizens older than 30 did so in 2008, for instance — youth turnout was larger than it had been in recent years, and was particularly notable because their wide margin of support helped lift Obama into office.
It remains to be seen, however, whether they'll show up at the polls this time.
A Gallup poll taken Aug. 27-Sept. 16 found that 63 percent of registered voters, ages 18 to 29, said they "definitely" plan to vote. That compares with at least 80 percent of registered voters in older age brackets who said the same.
By comparison, before the election in 2008, 79 percent of young registered voters said they definitely planned to cast a ballot, according to a Time/Abt SRBI poll, taken in later September of that year. Older voters were about as committed to vote then as they are this time. (Among self-reported registered voters, turnout in 2008 was 84 percent for 18- to 29-year-olds, according to the U.S. Census, compared with 91 percent for older voters. Those percentages are higher than the overall vote percentages above because they don't include citizens who never registered to vote.)
After that banner turnout, Allison Byers, a 25-year-old in San Francisco, finds young Americans' waning commitment to vote in this election frustrating.
"It kind of breaks my heart," says Byers, who works in communications at an arts college and was an active organizer for the Obama campaign in 2008, when she was a junior at Virginia Tech.
Even she concedes that she's feeling more "realistic" than excited about this election — her optimism tempered by the difficulties the nation and the president have faced in the last four years. But she remains committed to him.
"There are always reasons to be disenchanted and unenthusiastic," she says. "But you have to keep fighting the good fight."
It's important to note, though, that for a whole new crop of eligible voters — those who weren't yet 18 in November 2008 — this will be the first time they're able to cast a ballot.
And that has Della Volpe at Harvard wondering if the enthusiasm gap may be, at least partly, the result of a "growing schism" between older and younger millennials, the age group so named because they've reached adulthood in the new millennium.
Older millennials came of age amid the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, sparking some to become more civically and politically engaged. Meanwhile, "the political awakening of the younger millennials is happening during the recession," Della Volpe says.
How that will affect them, or influence this election, remains to be seen.
But already, Della Volpe and his staff have found that Obama holds a wider margin of support among older twentysomethings than with potential voters who are 18 to 24 — especially 18- and 19-year-olds.
Whether Republicans know that, or whether they simply noted young voters' influence on the last election, they have been spending more time courting college students lately.
Republican Paul Ryan, being framed as the "younger" vice presidential candidate, has spent time on campuses recently. George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also has been making the rounds at colleges and universities in his state, to try to generate interest in Republicans.
That is "a very, very astute move" by Republicans, Della Volpe says.
They won't win the youth vote, he predicts. "But they might win the white 18- to 24-year-old vote — and they could block some additional gains that Obama might make."
It means a lot depends on these next few weeks, especially since studies have shown that young voters are often late to engage in an election, even in a presidential year.
"Young voters tend to make up their minds about whether they will vote — and for whom — much later than older voters," says Brian Harward, a political scientist who heads the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
So voter registration drives are continuing in earnest, as are education campaigns to try to allay the confusion over which IDs students can use when voting. In states such as Pennsylvania, where a voter ID law remains in limbo, colleges and universities are issuing expiration stickers for student IDs, so they can be used at the polls.
In the absence of as many student-driven campaign activities, schools such as Elmhurst College also have created a calendar of fall political events — debate viewing parties and forums for congressional candidates, among them.
"I am still taken aback that students haven't really thought about the election that much," says Ian Crone, Elmhurst's associate dean of students.
He only hopes that, before Nov. 6, more of them will do so.
Harvard Institute of Politics: http://www.iop.harvard.edu/