Race against apathy: UVA students and the 2012 presidential election

UVA students on both ends of the political spectrum gathered at Boylan Heights to watch the second presidential debate October 16. Photo by John Robinson. UVA students on both ends of the political spectrum gathered at Boylan Heights to watch the second presidential debate October 16. Photo by John Robinson.

As a UVA student living among what seems like a lively and politically active group of young people, it’s hard to detach myself from the rhetoric surrounding the great importance of young voters—especially as I’m gearing up to cast my first presidential ballot.

2008 was hailed as a record-breaking year for voter turnout, especially among young people. A statement by the United States Census Bureau released in July 2009 said more young people voted in 2008 than 2004. “Additionally, voters 18 to 24 were the only age group to show a statistically significant increase in turnout, reaching 49 percent in 2008 compared with 47 percent in 2004,” the report says.

This time around, both campaigns are targeting young people; Republicans emphasize the effects of the job market on recent graduates whereas Democrats focus more on Obama’s record with student financial aid.

Still, young voters have historically had the lowest turnout rate of any age bracket, and Geoffery Skelley, an analyst for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at UVA’s Center for Politics, said the power of the youth vote is often given more credit than it’s due. “I think it’s been overstated just how much of an effect young voters had in the election last time,” he said.

Young people are more mobile, said Skelley, and they aren’t settled down in a community with a family, so they are probably less interested in the decisions that the government is making. “Young people are less likely to be involved just because they don’t see it as having as much importance, even though it may have just as much, if not more,” he said.

As part of the notoriously apathetic age bracket, I set out to find UVA students who are involved and vocal. What I found was a core group of students who are attempting to increase student participation and awareness of politics. Whether their efforts can move the needle when it comes to votes in the 18 to 24 bracket remains to be seen.

Before the voter registration window for this election closed, I walked past the two teams on the Lawn every day—Romney vs. Obama. Always, I was asked if I’d registered. Why yes, I have, but thank you for asking. I paused at one point to watch my peers avoid the tables like the plague. Eye contact equals interest; interest equals waste of time.

Local Democratic organizers estimate that only about 3,000 UVA students voted in the 2008 presidential election. The low voter turnout in my age bracket is appalling, and so are the excuses. “I don’t have time—I have an economics exam to study for that night.” “Both candidates suck.” “My vote won’t make a difference.” The list goes on.

Democratic and Republican student activists have been battling that attitude for months on Grounds. “I think it’s just important for students to notice their place within the general population, and how everything these candidates are talking about directly affects them,” said Camilla Griffiths, a senior at UVA and a neighborhood team leader for Organizing for America, Barack Obama’s grassroots campaign organization.

Many of my politically active peers dedicate about 15 to 20 hours a week to their respective causes, working in on-campus groups, for local campaign offices, or both. Their semesters consumed by phone banking, canvassing, registering voters, they still manage to go to class and even involve themselves in other extracurriculars.

“It hasn’t really affected my studies too much,” said Matt Wertman, a junior in UVA’s School of Architecture and the chairman of the on-Grounds chapter of College Republicans. “It has caused me much less sleep, but, you know, we can sleep after Election Day.”

Wertman and his fellow young GOP members have been hard at work this election season, establishing themselves as Virginia’s most active chapter of the national organization.

Rory Stolzenberg, a senior and the vice chairman of the College Republicans at UVA is also a voting member of the Republican State Central Committee, the GOP’s governing body in Virginia. He said he feels their efforts are paying off, and that people are more involved this year since it is a presidential race. “Honestly, 2012 is the big year. People are extremely motivated—more than I’ve ever seen before.”

The College Republicans benefited from some star power earlier this month when Mitt Romney’s son Tagg attended a watch party for the vice presidential debates. According to Stolzenberg, about 250 people came out to the event. “It got pretty wild,” he said. “Just so many people—I didn’t know there were that many Republicans at UVA.”

College Republicans said it was the economy that pushed them into Republican politics. Wertman and Stolzenberg said the bleak job market is the main force behind increased student involvement in this election and is contributing to a trend of fiscal conservatism among students.

“I have yet to have one voter tell me that the most important issue to them is any social issue that the Obama campaign’s brought up,” Wertman said. “Every voter I’ve talked to is concerned about jobs; they’re concerned about the economy.”

That’s in stark contrast to the attitudes of the active student Democrats I spoke to. They cited health care, public education, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and more as their reasons for getting involved. Many—like Griffiths, who chose to intern at the Obama office Downtown in order to break out of her University bubble—also said they valued the sense of community they gained working as campaign volunteers.

Griffiths said election season has generated a lot of excitement on Grounds, “but I think there’s almost an equal degree of passiveness,” she said. Discouraging that passivity is hard, she said, and excitement doesn’t always translate to votes.

Freshman Emma Meyers, another active OFA volunteer, hails from largely liberal D.C., and said she found something at UVA she didn’t expect: pushback. “Coming to UVA in particular has kind of been a bit of a culture shock, just because for the first time I’m in a more competitive political environment,” she said.

But though there’s been dialogue, she said she sometimes realizes she and her politically minded peers are something of a breed apart. “When you’re part of a campaign, with people who will dedicate, you know, 20 hours a week to volunteering, you kind of forget that not everybody is as into politics as you are,” said Meyers.

On October 16, I went to Boylan Heights for a debate-watching party hosted by our College Council to see just how many students were paying attention.

Students filled up two main spaces upstairs, one side predominantly Republican, mostly in polos and pearls, reflecting the work College Republicans have done to target fraternities and sororities. The other side was filled with Democratic supporters, a hodgepodge of individuals from all corners of the University. People walked around with clear plastic cups filled with red or blue drinks, proudly declaring their party affiliation through alcohol consumption.

Several Republicans chose to wear their politics on their sleeves, like the two blonde students with red bows placed carefully in their hair, matching red bracelets on their wrists, and two little red drinks in their hands.

The crowd was lively, shouting and laughing at the TV whenever their candidate sent a zinger flying at his opponent. It felt like more of a sporting event than anything else, and Republicans only reinforced the atmosphere by taking up a chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A” at the end of the debates.

On Election Day, I’m sure I’ll see dedicated Republicans and Democrats herding students into cars and vans to the polls and plenty of “I voted” stickers. But regardless of how much effort the most active students have put into getting out the campus vote, unless there’s a seismic shift in attitude, UVA’s voter turnout will be like Scott Stadium during an unsuccessful football season: half-capacity and half-hearted.

That’s not slowing down the dedicated core of activists, who are going to keep pushing the same message until November 6 —just get to the polls.

“No matter what you do, what talk you put on, whether you volunteer or not, it comes down to voting on Election Day,” said Meyers.

Allie Cooper is a UVA fourth year and an intern at CVILLE Weekly.

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