When Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 2008 to become the first African-American president in American history, he did so with a surge of college-age and 20-something voters animated by the Illinois senator’s mantra of hope and change.
Four years later, with the hope-and-change message battered by an anemic economy and hyper-partisanship in Congress, Eytan Kessler, a 21-year-old senior at Stony Brook University on Long Island, reflected some of the uncertainty gripping first-time voters this time around.
Over lunch last Friday at Delancey Street, the glatt kosher restaurant on campus, Kessler, a linguistics major from Port Jefferson Station, summed things up this way: “I saw how caught up people were four years ago when they were saying to vote for Obama. But today, most of the stuff I’m getting is from Facebook, and it’s mixed.”
Then, in an assessment that bodes ill for both Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, Kessler said, “I’ll probably vote for Obama, but I’m unsure. I know I don’t want to vote for Romney — and might end up sitting it out. People are saying so many different things about them, and both say bad things about each other. I looked at my Facebook feed last night and everyone was trashing both candidates.”
In 2008, Obama, taking advantage of a tidal wave of 22 million voters under 30, captured 66 percent of the youth vote. It resulted in a 34-percentage point drubbing of McCain in that age category, according to exit polls. This time around, as a neck-and-neck race between Obama and Romney enters the home stretch, those numbers are likely to tighten.
Interviews with nearly two dozen students on three area college campuses — Hofstra, in Hempstead, which hosts the second presidential debate next week, Stony Brook and Hunter College in Manhattan — revealed that the youth vote, at least among Jewish students here, is very much divided. And while the thrill many young people felt for Obama four years ago may in large part be gone, the excitement for Romney doesn’t seem as palpable either.
Larry Levy, executive dean at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said it would be hard for any candidate to maintain the momentum Obama had four years ago. He warned that without it, “Obama could be in difficulty.”
“It’s the same with minority voters,” Levy added. “Obama needs to get his base out to be successful, and young people were a very important part of that base.”
A few steps from the Hillel sukkah at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I., last Friday a large poster reminded students that the next presidential debate Oct. 16 would be on their campus.
“The campus is buzzing because the debate is less than two weeks away,” said Bari Morchower, a 21-year-old senior from Rockaway, N.J. “It’s an ongoing conversation here.”
She said she hopes Obama is re-elected — she already cast an absentee ballot for him — because she agrees with his positions on social issues.
“I am pro-choice, and gay rights issues are also important to me,” she said.
For Morchower and other undergraduates, this is their first vote for president. And while national polls found voters primarily concerned with the economy and health care, few students mentioned them.
Ari Cymbrot, 18, of Scarsdale in Westchester County, said he entered the Hofstra lottery hoping to snag one of the few hundred tickets available for students to attend the debate even though he is “not really into politics.”
“But if you get my mom talking about politics, you can’t stop her,” he said. “She’s an anesthesiologist and she hates Obamacare and Obama especially.”
He said he plans to vote for Romney both because of the candidate’s strong support for Israel and his business experience.
“As a businessman he can run this country much better than Obama,” he said. “Romney is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.”
Cymbrot was sitting in the cafeteria next to his friend, Russell Leventhal, 20, of Syosset, L.I., who was munching on pea pods.
“I’m voting for Romney,” he said. “I volunteered to serve for two years in the Israeli army in July 2010. While I was serving in Israel, Obama said Jerusalem should be divided and that Israel should give back the Golan Heights to Syria.”
(Obama in May 2011 called upon Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders to provide land for a Palestinian state, which would require Israel giving up all or part of the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.)
“When my officers heard that, they went nuts,” Leventhal said. “They said such borders would be indefensible. … I didn’t like Obama before that, but those comments p----d me off — to tell Israel it had to divide its capital is ridiculous.”
Leventhal added that his mother voted for Obama four years ago, “but today she says no way.”
At Delancey Street, the restaurant at Stony Brook, there was noticeably less excitement about the election.
“I watched the [first presidential] debate, but I zoned in and out,” confessed Chelsea Katz, 19, of Bayside, Queens. “It’s a lot of politics, and it was a lot to grasp all at once.”
But she said she is “really excited to vote” and that election season makes her “proud to be in this country.” She said Romney won the debate “outright and Obama looked uncomfortable. … Still, I believe in [Obama’s] policies. I don’t think he is done yet, and I want to give him the chance.”
Dylan Fried, 18, of Levittown, L.I., said he watched a “couple of minutes” of the debate and people later told him “Romney hit hard and Obama was trying to hold his own.” Nevertheless, he said he plans to vote for Obama because “he’s done a pretty good job the last four years — [like] pulling our troops out of Iraq.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, director of Georgetown University’s Program for Jewish Civilization, said he has found that “young Jewish students who are tuned out to the election and not following it very closely will vote Democratic because that’s what their parents have done.”
“It’s kind of a reflexive embrace of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Behzad Mahram, 21, a senior from Greenvale, L.I., said of the candidates: “I don’t think either of them is good enough. … I’m split 50-50. I’m leaning towards Romney. The debates could help me make up my mind.”
(Mahram seemed to reflect a Harvard Institute of Politics online survey last spring that found that about 30 percent of voters under 30 were undecided. A July Pew Research poll found Obama holding a 61-37 percent lead over Romney in the under-30 age group; the Harvard poll had Obama up 12 percentage points in the 18 to 24 age category, only about half of his lead in the 24 to 29 group.)
David Chadrow, 22, of Woodmere, L.I., said he remembers Obama from four years ago when “there was a lot of hope and promises of change, and since he’s been in things have not gotten better.” Part of his distress with Obama, he said, is that “Israel is an incredibly important ally” and Romney is “much stronger on Israel.”
Michael Frenkel, 21, a junior at Hunter College said he is “pretty sure I’m going to be voting for Mr. Romney” even though he does not believe “anything is going to really change. … They’re both going to be prisoners of whoever paid for their election victory. Obama is going to be the president of the unions; Romney’s going to be the president of the corporations.”
As a result, Frenkel, a Ukraine native, said he would “rather vote for none of the above, but I don’t have that option.”
On the other hand, David Leshaw, a 21-year-old Hunter College senior, said he is “OK with either” candidate.
“Neither candidate has presented a case to make a compelling difference to me,” he explained.
Asked what issues matter most to him, Leshaw replied: “Taxes, what are they going to do about the student debt load, are they going to draw down more troops from overseas [and] ... I’m a little bit invested in social issues like gay rights and abortion.”
“I think that Romney’s marginally better for Israel than Obama is … [but] there’s no candidate that really lit a fire in my belly.”
Deborah Dana, 21, said that before coming to Hunter and taking a political science course she was not interested in politics. But now she’s excited about the election “just because I know what’s going on.”
She said she likes Obama’s policies, his health care plan, that “he killed Osama bin Laden, and that the World Trade Center didn’t blow up under his administration.”
Editorial intern Gabriela Geselowitz contributed reporting to this story.