A line of students snaked across George Mason University’s Fairfax campus waiting to greet President Barack Obama last Friday as he rallied youth supporters in an effort to energize the base that got him elected in 2008.
The president appealed to students’ wallets with a speech focusing on economic issues impacting young voters, such as affordable health care, the ability to stay on a parent’s insurance until age 26, bringing the cost of college tuition down and women’s health issues.
“I don’t think a college student in Fairfax or Charlottesville should have to choose between textbooks and health care,” Obama said Friday. “If you vote for me in November, we will win Fairfax County again. We’ll win Virginia again.”
Among those attending the event was GMU senior Shane Smith, 21, who would have been 17 the last time the president ran for office.
“Education has always been a big issue for me, but beyond that, the jobless rate is of real interest,” said Smith, who heads Mason Votes, a student-run nonpartisan get-out-the-vote group.
Also at the event was GMU College Democrats President Megan Adamczewski. The 21-year-old junior said many students lined up 12 hours early for a chance to get one of 500 tickets to last week’s Obama For America event.
“I think if you look at Romney’s and Obama’s trip schedule over the past few weeks, you can tell their focus is on Virginia,” Adamczewski said. “If Fairfax swings for Obama, Virginia will swing for Obama and that’s why he visited our campus.”
The Obama for America campaign has scheduled stops at several college campuses, many in city-settings, since May. Obama visited Virginia Commonwealth University on May 5 and Norfolk State University on Sept. 4. Vice President Joe Biden visited Virginia Tech on Aug. 15. First lady Michelle Obama visited the University of Mary Washington on Sept. 13. Additionally, the president made a campaign stop near the University of Virginia on Aug. 29, after the school said an on-campus stop would be too disruptive to the beginning of its academic year.
“Obama certainly has to engage the youth vote and holding events on college campuses is a way do to that and register students to vote,” said GMU professor Michael McDonald, a government and politics scholar. McDonald, who also blogs for Huffington Post’s Pollster, says the youth voting cohort has swung drastically Democrat since 2004.
During the 2008 election, turount among voters age 18-29 doubled to 51.1 percent compared to the midterm election of 2006 (25.4 percent), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. McDonald said young voters are fickle in terms of turnout, but have been staunchly in favor of Democratic candidates since about 2004. In 2010, the age gap (youth under 30 and voters 60 or older) was 16 percentage points, the largest on record, McDonald said. A Pew Research Center report from November 2011 on the 2012 election said about half of youth voters 18-30 categorize themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning Independents, while only 36 percent say they lean Republican.
“I don’t know why, but the Democrats really know how to market to younger people,” said GMU senior Kristie Colorado, 21, who is chairwoman of the George Mason College Republicans. “Republicans seem to focus on issues that aren’t exciting to young people.”
Colorado said if Romney visited GMU the turnout would likely not match Obama’s turnout last Friday, in part because the campus leans more liberal, but also because issues on the Republican platform tend to lack the social appeal and outreach Democrats have generated.
“I feel like Republicans use scare tactics like, ‘Do you want to live with your parents when you graduate?’ rather than making issues appealing,” Colorado said.
Social issues like gay rights and the DREAM Act of 2012 appeal to the diversity shown on college campuses like GMU, McDonald said. These issues also appeal to young Republicans like Colorado, but she said she is voting Republican — as she did in 2008 — because she is a fiscal conservative.
GMU Professor Jeremy Mayer, an elections expert for the school, said the Obama 2008 campaign used social media networks and technology to attract the youth vote in ways no other candidate had before.
“It’s the one demographic of the white population that Obama won over [2008 presidential Republican candidate and Sen. John] McCain,” Mayer said, adding that youth turnout — or the lack of — could greatly impact the election results in Virginia.