Although hyped as “historically close” in the media, this year’s presidential election does not seem to be inspiring action among college students, as evident by the lack of signs and other materials for different candidates on campus.
In a survey of 15 students, 12 said they do not support a candidate running for president, 13 said they would not get politically involved on campus and 13 said they would not actively endorse President Obama or Gov. Romney on campus if given the chance.
The most commonly cited reasons for not getting involved politically is that students were busy, they were not “big political people” or the election was a worthless activity.
Wilkes political science professors Tom Baldino and Kyle Kreider agree the lack of interest in politics from college students is not unusual.
Kreider thinks the reason there aren’t any campaign literature for any political parties on campus is because students don’t care as much as other age cohorts. He also explained young voters’ level of apathy is higher, which is partly caused by a negative perspective on politics.
“They don’t care because they think that politicians are a bunch of liars, they’re a bunch of snake-oil fails, so they kind of see both the Republican and Democratic parties as corrupt and the candidates are simply a reflection of that corruption,” Kreider said. “They’re apathetic but they’re also very cynical and I think that cynicism works its way into non participation.”
Kreider said when students are cynical of politicians in general it leads to a decline in voting for college students, particularly when they think that Obama did not deliver on his campaign promises of 2008.
Baldino said campaign literature was present all over the place during the 2008 election because students were energized and both campaigns were spending time getting the vote in Pennsylvania on TV and in-person. This year both campaigns decided not to put as much focus on Pennsylvania.
“We don’t see much on campus now but we don’t also in Pennsylvania see very many campaign ads because both candidates and their campaigns decided Pennsylvania wasn’t in play,” Baldino said. “The Democrats were perceived as having locked up the state so we’re not seeing Democratic campaign ads. Romney pulled his money out so we’re not seeing his ads and that trickles down to affect everything else.”
Baldino said if the top of the ticket isn’t spending a lot of time in the state, there isn’t any reason for anyone else to do so as well.
Kreider said part of what explains that the survey results are not abnormal, and there are several other factors that explain this. For a long time people thought of voting as a civic duty, a responsibility as an American citizen. He said the younger generations have strayed from this classification compared to older generations.
“For a number of reasons they don’t think of voting as a duty and so they just participate at much lower rates than older Americans,” Kreider said.
Junior criminology and sociology major Paige Kulsa isn’t sure which candidate to endorse and an opportunity to get politically involved would give her a better idea of the candidates running.
“I want to get more knowledge of each candidate’s side,” Kulsa said.
Kulsa said she isn’t fully aware of what the candidates stand for because each of them has good viewpoints of some things and others have views she doesn’t agree with.
Sophomore environmental engineering major Corbin Shermin doesn’t endorse any candidate running for president and said he was never interested in understanding politics.
“I’ve never really had time to get into it, it just never clicked for me,” Sherman said. “Looking at their platforms I couldn’t really side with either.”
Kreider said the life stage that 18- to 21-year-olds are at determines how they vote. Because many people that age are away at college, they are responsible to change voter registration and many don’t think they have the time to think about getting the absentee ballot done.
“You simply have a lot of college students who do not change their voter registration, are not home on Election Day because they’re in college and have never filled out an absentee ballot. In order to vote absentee you need to think about voting six weeks before the election,” Kreider said. “I think a lot of college students, even if they are registered where they’re living in college, they get busy with schoolwork and other sorts of things so it’s simply more work to vote.”
Baldino said the prominent time that students were fully engaged in a presidential election was 1972, followed by 2008, both of which were unusual in terms of activity level. He said some students don’t see the political system doing anything important for them and use that opinion as a reason for them not getting engaged in politics.
“I hear this from students all the time: ‘I don’t see what the government does for me,’ ‘I don’t understand what government does’ and the other line is ‘I think government should be doing more but government doesn’t respond to the needs of students or of young people in general,’ but that gets into the circular argument that elected officials use is that elected which is elected officials will tell young people ‘we don’t act on your interests because you don’t vote,” Baldino said. “They don’t vote, and therefore they’re not going to get any attention. If they voted, elected officials will respond.”
Baldino said in 1972, the Vietnam War was still going on and a lot of students were politically active outside of government protesting, so a lot of them voted against Richard Nixon at that time. The 18-25 population was the least politically active until 2008, in which the participation rate among all voter ages increased.
Baldino also said the expectation is students won’t vote in as high numbers as in 2008 because they are disappointed with President Obama’s policies and initiatives.
“Some of these young people are disillusioned, they worked for Obama, they voted for Obama and they don’t think he delivered for them,” Baldino said.
Wilkes has established chapters of both the College Democrats and Republicans. The College Republicans are currently active while the Democrats club is dormant.
College Democrats adviser Jim Merryman explained that the issues of the campaign four years ago energized students to want to be involved with the club. Now there aren’t as many issues for students to get excited over.
“It’s like OK, we know all about that, what is there to get excited about other than a poor economy,” Merryman said. “It’s hard to get stirred up about the current state of affairs.”
Merryman also cites a lack of campus leadership and the exciting causes as some of the reasons for the College Democrats not being active. He said it has been hard getting students interested in the group.
“Our former president graduated, as did a number of very active students, so it’s a question of finding that core of politically active students who can rally the troops,” Merryman said.
College Republicans president Ian Foley said the club has been active in organizing a watch party for the first presidential debate that was open to all members of campus, along with organizing several voter registration and absentee ballot drives and volunteering at the Romney campaign headquarters.
Foley said the group has gained five to six freshmen, including one who is serving as the group’s secretary. He expects younger membership to continue into next year.
“I’m just glad we’ve been able to remain a force on campus,” Foley said.
Merryman said sees no reason why both groups can’t exist at the same time.
Baldino, Kreider, Merryman and Foley all stress the importance of students getting involved and voting.
“I would say it is important for college students to get involved in every election,” Baldino said. “Government does have an impact on your life, you may not see it directly as a young voter but it has an impact on your life.”