They turned out in huge numbers and overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Barack Obama, voting not just for a politician but the leader of a cause that seemed both epic and transformational.
But four years later, many young voters -- facing high unemployment and diminished dreams -- regard the presidential race as a less-than-inspiring choice between two thoroughly conventional candidates.
There is little doubt Obama will again win a majority of the youth vote against Republican Mitt Romney, as Democrats have in all but three presidential elections since 18-year-olds started voting in 1972.
The more important question is whether the turnout matches that of 2008, a factor that could decide the outcome in several battleground states -- North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado among them -- and ultimately determine who wins the White House on Nov. 6.
Luke DeGregori, a University of Colorado physics student, is typical. The lanky 19-year-old couldn’t vote four years ago, but remembers the enthusiasm surrounding Obama’s candidacy. His parents had a yard sign outside their Denver home and Obama bumper stickers on their cars. Today, DeGregori, a Democrat, drives one of those cars and keeps the bumper sticker “because I still kind of support Obama.”
He is disappointed, though, that the president turned out to be “just another conformist politician.”
“Most friends I know are kind of like me,” DeGregori said, pausing between decorating classrooms for a campus Halloween party. “They’re going to vote for Obama, but it’s not an enthusiastic vote. It’s just we prefer Obama over Romney.”
For young people, like most others, the economy has been the overriding issue of the campaign. National unemployment in September was 11.8% for those ages 18 to 29, higher for 18- to 24-year-olds and higher still for youth lacking a high school or college diploma. (The overall jobless rate was 7.8%.)
Romney’s appeal to younger voters is based almost entirely on a pledge to do better, and for some, including Jeffrey Johnston, that is enough. At age 20, he is studying architecture and already worrying about job prospects when he graduates in 2014.
He’s not crazy about Romney, particularly his conservative stands on social issues, such as abortion. But Johnston, who is not even certain of his party registration, knows he “hasn’t seen as much hope and change as I would have liked” -- a dour reference to Obama’s 2008 slogan -- so he’s willing to take a chance on the former Massachusetts governor. “It’s the lesser of two evils,” Johnston shrugged.
The Obama campaign, in a familiar refrain, notes the job market is improving, albeit not as quickly as desired. The unemployment rate for youth 16 to 24, for instance, has fallen from a peak of 19.6% in April 2010 to 15.5% in September, according to Tufts University research.
But the case the president makes for reelection goes beyond economics or the gossamer promise of four years ago. He cites passage of healthcare legislation allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26; programs to make college more accessible; an end to the war in Iraq; support for same-sex marriage; and repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly.
In a Friday interview on MTV, Obama appealed to younger women, a crucial constituency, by citing Romney’s opposition to legalized abortion and vow to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, as well as steps he himself has taken to promote pay equity and more flexible family leave.
“I’ve got two daughters,” he said, speaking from the Blue Room of the White House. “I want to make sure they have the same opportunities and the same rights as anybody’s sons do.”
Romney is hardly ceding the youth vote. When Obama proposed freezing interest on federally subsidized college loans, Romney quickly embraced the notion. He promises more job opportunities for young people and routinely cites the swelling national debt and the burden it will impose on the millennial generation, as well as their children.
“I don’t understand how a college kid could vote for Barack Obama, not because he’s a bad guy, but just because he doesn’t understand that as he spends this money and says how much he’s helping you, he’s in fact spending your money, and you’re going to have to pay it back with interest,” Romney told a crowd this week in Ohio.
His campaign has worked with college Republican clubs to build a national youth outreach effort, led by Romney’s youngest son, Craig, 31, with chapters in every battleground state and a presence on Facebook, YouTube and other social media. That, and the economy, should ensure a better showing than John McCain, who lost the youth vote to Obama by more than 2 to 1.
But the campaign got a late start, beginning only after the bitter GOP nominating fight.
Obama’s team has spent 18 months refining its youth outreach, pairing staffers with volunteers organized down to the level of campus “dorm captain.” The campaign has also targeted social media, cafes, restaurants and other hangouts, and has organized sleepovers in early-voting states to encourage turnout.
Celebrity endorsers have worked to build excitement, as they did in 2008, appearing in ads -- in one Web video, actress Lena Dunham likened casting her first ballot to losing her virginity -- and dropping by college communities like Boulder.
On Saturday, a caravan of actors including Zachary Quinto and Rachael Leigh Cook pulled up to a sub shop on University Hill, a popular spot just west of campus, and took to a makeshift stage amid the cluster of small wooden tables. Speaking to about 75 young women, they touched on the same issues Obama had -- pay equity, women’s health, student loans -- with more edge and definitely more attitude. (“He is a liar,” Quinto said of Romney, referring to his recent moves toward the political middle.)
Outside, in the unseasonable chill, a white van designated the “Vote Mobile” sat idling, ready to shuttle supporters to nearby polling places to cast early ballots.
Obama has good cause for concern. Several polls, including a nationwide Harvard survey, found younger people less enthusiastic about the election than four years ago, and also less inclined to vote. The poll found Obama leading Romney 55% to 36%, in line with other surveys. But fewer than half of those questioned said they definitely planned to cast a ballot.
Peter Levine, a youth vote expert at Tufts University, noted that younger people tended to engage late in a campaign, with many undecided until the last week, or even election day.
Obama is taking no chances. “Don’t believe this idea that your vote does not matter,” he said on MTV, citing the 2000 election, which came down to 537 fiercely disputed votes in Florida. “The same thing could happen here. So there’s no excuse.”
On Thursday, the president plans to visit Boulder for the third time this year.