WASHINGTON — My oldest granddaughters can vote for president for the first time — one as a 21-year-old who wasn't 18 in 2008 and the other who is 19. They belong to a group of young Americans who worry less these days about politics and more about their post-college futures — futures filled with the need to pay off hefty student loans with fewer opportunities to do so.
That 18-to-24 age group, four years ago, found Barack Obama and his youthful energy and his promises enticing. But now the polls are showing that among this age group, the enthusiasm for Obama has waned substantially. The change is not necessarily because they don't like him, but because many of them don't believe any politician can be counted on to make changes they feel are necessary. Their political optimism has been severely curtailed by the pressures of recession and a sudden disillusionment about the so-called American Dream.
It is a tough age under normal circumstances. But when given options of more college and more debt — or a bartending job to go along with a baccalaureate degree if one is lucky — that can produce a decided lack of faith in the political process. This doesn't mean that the president or, for that matter, Mitt Romney will lose or benefit respectively from this malaise. It just indicates that neither of the candidates can expect much help from them. Youthful voters are expected to turn out in much fewer numbers than older Americans.
The surveys are showing that while Obama leads among the 24-to-29-year-olds overall, among white voters of that age group he is trailing substantially. That was a segment with a higher voting record than usual, and one that supported him overwhelmingly. But the so called "youth vote" has never been a stable commodity. While young men and women talk a good game, they stay away from the voting booths in droves, particularly when there is no issue that raises their ire as it did during the Vietnam era.
"I don't know who I will vote for, Grandpa," Claire said. "I'm not sure anything interests me much more than getting through my last year and finding a job, and no politician has the answer to that."
Claire is a rising senior at James Madison University and has let it be known far and wide that she is tired of school. At times I have felt that her main interest recently has been reaching an age where she could have a beer without looking over her shoulder. But that is not unusual for newly minted "adults." Fortunately her parents have seen to it she won't be saddled with debt.
Nicole, a fierce scholastic competitor, on the other hand, knows exactly where she is headed after William and Mary in two years or so — graduate school, probably abroad. Her views of the political situation don't differ much from her cousin's, but she obviously is less concerned about the job situation, hoping that by the time she is finished the market will have changed. She, like most of her contemporaries, finds politics tainted by promises not kept and is turned off by the growing incivility.
Experts believe that Romney has an opportunity with the 18-to-24 age group because it is not connected to the 2008 campaign. Political scientists at Harvard reportedly have found a more conservative trend among this group. Even a small vein of support would be important if Republicans can mine it. To accomplish that, Romney's campaign needs to begin a concerted effort on college campuses.
Obama is already making that effort. The president's programs include reaching out to high school teenagers and, according to The New York Times, staging young folks' rallies in swing states. The president's political aides are optimistic, at least publicly, about where this will lead, contending that young people, as they did in 2008, ultimately will energize the Obama campaign.
Most veteran political observers are unconvinced. They contend that the economic ravages of the last four years have left too many of them pessimistic about politics generally.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.