Conservatives may be able to harness youth disillusionment in 2012

Nikki Grey Contributor
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Edward Dooley, 20, was so enchanted with candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 election that, although he was too young to vote, he still traveled from his home in Massachusetts to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Obama in the primary. Now Dooley, a political science major at George Washington University, holds a different opinion of President Obama and the Democratic Party in general.

“For me, Obama had a good amount to do with the reason I changed my political opinions,” Dooley said. “I classify myself as a former Democrat, current conservative.”

Dooley said that part of the reason he no longer supports Obama was that Obama failed to deliver on his “idealistic” promises, including those related to the economy.

Dooley is not alone.

In a recent poll conducted by the polling company, inc./WomanTrend on behalf of Generation Opportunity, 44 percent of respondents age 18-29 don’t approve on how Obama has handled youth unemployment, while only 31 percent approve.

“I think (the election) is going to be much closer than people realize, the question is not for whom young people will vote, but whether they will bother at all,” Kellyanne Conway, founder and president of tpc/WT, said of the poll results. “And it’s not because they are apathetic, but because they are realists and they know what they see, which is high food and fuel prices and massive student loan debt, and what they don’t see, which is a well-paying job and a reason to feel optimistic about their futures.”

That is a far cry from 2008, when Obama’s approval rating among young people soared, something Jason Mattera, author of Obama Zombies, partially attributes to online mass media.

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“Facebook was a huge part that played in raising money for Barack Obama and being able to identify supporters,” Mattera said. “Barack Obama was active on YouTube. Don’t forget that a lot of young people are getting their news from YouTube, or getting their news from Twitter. Obama was robust, so much so that he hired the co-creator of Facebook to run his new media team… that shows you that Barack Obama had a vested interest in becoming the first Internet president.”

In Obama Zombies, Mattera outlined the contrasts between Obama’s social media presence versus that of John McCain. The data included the number of Facebook friends each candidate had on Election Day. Obama had 2,397,253, while McCain only had 622,860. The disparities continued for number of campaign-made videos posted on YouTube, with Obama’s 1,822 videos dwarfing McCain’s 330.

Obama’s media presence in 2008 was record-breaking, but youth conservative groups are rallying to try to make sure they get their messages out for 2012, as well.

The College Republican National Committee has been trying to mobilize the youth vote by creating television advertisements calling to attention subjects such as the national debt, and “breaking up” with Obama, which can be seen not only during shows that target young adults, but also on YouTube and Facebook.

The CRNC also changed its strategy for fieldwork since 2008. Instead of sending one representative to each state, the CRNC sent 25 field representatives to five select states to recruit, train and engage members for College Republicans in 2010. Through this, the CRNC gained 25,200 new members. The group plans to utilize a similar strategy for 2012.

“We have to be aggressive,” CRNC Director of Communications Rob Lockwood said. “As College Republicans, it is our role to bring these ideas to the forefront and to give ourselves a voice.”

Lockwood continued, “If 2010 was any measurement, we are going to see continued growth amongst young voters in favor of the Republican Party because it’s their future at stake and they will be voting for the candidates who put forth responsible ideas and solutions, and those will be the Republican candidates.”

FreedomWorks, an activist organization that pushes for less government, lower taxes, and “more freedom,” is also organizing for 2012. The group hopes to pick up votes from both Democrats and Independents.

“We can get a much better slice of that vote than we did last time…and for a lot of reasons, but disillusionment with Obama and his stances on foreign policy and economic policy, especially,” Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, said. “I don’t expect college campuses to be on fire with real organic grass roots support for Obama. You won’t see the number of turn out for him as you did on 2008.”

Jonah Seiger, founder and managing partner of Connections Media, a digital agency that strategizes in politics and public affairs, said that Obama was able to capture youth energy using social media. Seiger expects digital media will continue to make a large impact in upcoming elections, and that Obama and the Republican nomination will both rely heavily on digital media for support, persuasion and fundraising.

“Without question social media will play a role for not just young voters, but all voters…we know that digital media is reaching all of America and for that reason, without any doubt, the 2012 campaign will rely even more on social media than any other election cycle,” Seiger said.

Seiger said that although digital media is an important vehicle for mobilizing youth, it isn’t the reason behind youth participation: engagement is.

“That’s the challenge for President Obama and his challengers, and digital is a place for that to happen… it’s less about digital than it is about young people’s investment and connection to what’s happening in the country,” Seiger said. “Can the president keep that spark burning? We’ll see. Can one of his challengers capture that? We’ll see…”

Caitlin Wallace, 22, who is going into her second year as a law student at the University of Wyoming College of Law, said that many of her peers went into law school not because of a genuine interest in law, but because the job market is so bad they did not want start looking for jobs yet.

“People say that the education is the key to getting a job, and that’s not working,” Wallace said.

Wallace said she thinks part of the reason conservative youth did not come out to vote in 2008 is because they felt their vote would not make a difference. This election, Wallace said, she hopes that will change.

“I think conservative youth last election saw the impact that the liberal youth, per se, had and I think that scared people… they saw we could have voted to prevent this, and I think that’s what will bring people out this election.”

Jenny Erikson, affiliate and promoter of Intellectual Takeout, a non-political, educational 501(c)(3) institution, agrees.

“In 2008, it was very frustrating as a 20-something to see so many of my peers to just blindly follow a candidate without understanding why,” Erikson said. “I think that people have a lot of buyer’s remorse voting for Barack Obama and young voters especially will look at how a candidates policies are going to affect their lives instead of just looking at hope and change that wasn’t delivered.”

From poll results to mobilization of youth by conservative groups, it seems like Obama may have his work cut out for him in 2008, but many of the organizations realize that despite their success in current efforts, it could still be an uphill battle. They remain confident, however, because so much has changed since 2008.

Daniel Diaz, the executive director for Young Americans for Freedom, which recently merged with Young America’s Foundation, remembers what it was like at college campuses in 2008. He said he remembers the Obama stickers, the Obama chalking on the sidewalk and the people wearing Obama shirts registering students to vote. Diaz said that the situation has changed, catalyzed by both youth outreach of conservative groups and also youth dissatisfaction with Obama. These factors, he said, will be reflected in the 2012 election.

“Because of the youth, Obama won the election (in 2008),” Diaz said. “The polls that I am seeing say college students are no longer as supportive of Obama and I think there is going to be a turn. They want something different… the one thing Obama really pushed was job creation (while running for office), but how many students don’t have a job? It’s going to resonate with the youth that whatever Obama is doing isn’t going to work and I think they are going to vote against him.”

Former Obama supporter and George Washington University student Dooley, who once portrayed Obama in a mock debate in high school arguing for the candidate’s views and policies, now sits on the boards for Young America’s Foundation and College Republicans on his campus. Dooley said that leaving his hometown in Massachusetts enabled him to hear a myriad of different opinions than what he previously experienced.

“I realized I needed to take a better look at what I believe and not just believe what people told me I believe,” Dooley said.