WASHINGTON – The Obamamania that gripped college campuses two years ago is gone.
An Associated Press-mtvU poll found college students cooling in their support for President Barack Obama, a fresh sign of trouble for Democrats struggling to rekindle enthusiasm among many of these newest voters for the crucial midterm elections in three weeks.
Forty-four percent of students approve of the job Obama is doing as president, while 27 percent are unhappy with his stewardship, according to the survey conducted late last month. That’s a significant drop from the 60 percent who gave the president high marks in a May 2009 poll. Only 15 percent had a negative opinion back then.
It’s not just students. Obama’s support from many groups has ebbed since his early months in office because of persistently high unemployment and opposition to his plans to revive the economy and overhaul the health care system. But his diminished backing from college students raises further questions about whether the Democrats’ efforts to rally them—and other loyal supporters such as Blacks and union members—will be enough to prevent Republicans from winning control of Congress in the Nov. 2 elections.
Obama’s weaker performance on campus also underscores his party’s struggles to turn the 15 million first-time voters of 2008—nearly one in eight of that year’s total—into a solid political army. Exit polls from 2008 show 55 percent of new voters were age 18 to 24, and those young first-timers strongly backed Obama and Democratic House candidates—a potent bloc if Democrats could lure them back to the voting booth.
Hoping to rekindle campus enthusiasm, Obama planned to appear Thursday at a youth town hall being shown live on MTV, BET and other networks. He also is to lead a rally Sunday at Ohio State University, and in recent days he headlined a massive gathering at the University of Wisconsin and a webcast town hall at George Washington University.
Ohio State’s 55,000 students are a big part of a central Ohio congressional district in which Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy is facing a rematch with her 2008 opponent, Republican Steve Stivers. Kilroy spokesman Brad Bauman says the students are “a huge voting bloc for us,” but Stivers spokesman John Damschroder says any advantage Kilroy had on campus in the close 2008 race will be minimized.
“She had a wind at her back last time,” he said, referring to students’ support then for Obama. “Now it’s a stand-alone election for her.”
Political scientists, campaign workers, students and others say many students are unhappy with Obama’s handling of the economy, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and failures to end the ban against gays serving openly in the military or to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. There’s also frustration with the messy political process and his inability to deliver on his campaign promise to change Washington.
“People expect things to happen quickly,” said Elizabeth Wright, a senior at the University of Colorado. “I don’t think people understand it takes time.”
The findings in the AP-mtvU poll, which surveyed more than 2,000 undergraduates age 18 to 24, come as students and others say political activity on campuses is way down from the frenetic levels of the 2008 presidential race. Josh Rohrer, a senior at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., says it was impossible to walk to class two years ago without seeing campaign fliers, T-shirts and tables strewn with candidates’ brochures.
“Now, if you don’t read a newspaper, you wouldn’t know there’s about to be an election,” he said.
Even so, college Republicans and Democrats are still registering students and helping them vote with absentee ballots if needed. Republicans aired a TV ad in college towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida called “The Breakup,” showing young people expressing disillusionment with Obama. Democrats say they’ve made nearly 2 million phone calls and visits to young voters since late May.
Enthusiasm by all groups dips in midterm elections compared to presidential races. The drop-off is compounded for college students, who can be distracted by everything from classes to football and often aren’t registered to vote in their school’s congressional district.
“It sort of falls under the radar,” said Rebecca Leber, a senior from the University of Rochester.
In the AP-mtvU poll, White students are about evenly divided over Obama—34 percent approve of his performance while 37 percent disapprove. In May 2009, they approved by 53 percent to 21 percent. The drop is consistent with his decreased popularity among all Whites.
Minority students are positive by 58 percent to 13 percent margin, slightly worse than in May 2009. In both polls, about a quarter overall were neutral.
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan group that encourages young people to vote, said it has registered 225,000 young voters for this year’s election, more than four times as many as in the last midterm in 2006. But she says the political parties aren’t spending enough to energize students, and she predicted turnout would resemble 2006, a mediocre year.
“It’s a cycle of neglect,” she said.
To combat that, entertainer Jay-Z has made a TV ad for HeadCount, a group of musicians and others who register young people to vote, in which he says, “Fight for what you believe in.”
AP-GfK polls show Obama remains more popular among younger than older voters, but more older people express interest in the congressional elections. A September survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that among people under 30, those favoring Republicans are likelier than Democratic supporters to say they’ve thought a lot about the election.
The AP-mtvU Poll was conducted Sept. 20-24 by Edison Research of Somerville, N.J., and involved interviews with 2,207 randomly chosen undergraduates at 40 randomly selected four-year schools with at least 1,000 undergrads. To protect privacy, the schools were not being identified and students’ names were not recorded. The survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The sponsorship by mtvU, an MTV channel for college students, is related to its “Half of Us” program, which it runs with the Jed Foundation for publicizing students’ mental health issues.