THE YOUTH VOTE: Midstate college students weigh in on voting in presidential election

pramati@macon.comOctober 27, 2012 

Some pundits are calling this year’s presidential election one of the most important in American history.

But on midstate college campuses, the interest in the election has been fairly muted.

While the colleges have had their share of voter registration drives, students say they have seen little political activism on campuses. There haven’t been any major rallies there for President Barack Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

And except for the discussions that go on during political science or history classes, there haven’t been many fiery college-campus debates extolling the virtues of either candidate.

“I don’t think there’s been too much (discussion) on campus,” said Alanna Ross, a 21-year-old senior at Wesleyan College in Macon. “We’re not really encouraged to talk about it in class.”

The mood of college students in 2012 is markedly different than it was just four years ago, when Obama was running to become the first black president of the United States.

“It’s just not that ‘rah-rah’ for either candidate,” said Jason Rich, a political science professor at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. “In 2008, (President George W.) Bush was pretty unpopular, and Obama was an exciting candidate -- he was the first African-American, the first to use social media widely. Now both candidates use social media. I think nationwide, (this year) you’ll have a lower turnout of young people.”

Connor Goldman, 19, a sophomore marketing major at Georgia College, said earlier this month he was still undecided which candidate he will support for president.

“As far as I’m concerned, the country is in a weird place,” he said. “Both candidates don’t seem to know what they are doing.”

Goldman said he would consider voting for one of the candidates “if one of them takes a stand on something.”

Most students polled earlier this month at Wesleyan, Georgia College, Mercer University, Macon State College and Fort Valley State University said the economy, especially jobs, is the most important issue to their lives.

Fort Valley State students, however, showed strong support for Obama, because many of them said they think Romney would cut funding to financial aid and student loans if he is elected.

“Obama will keep financial aid,” said Shaquindra McFarland, 18, a freshman psychology major at Fort Valley State. “That’s all people talk about here. I don’t really follow the other issues.”

Mercer University

Carrie Ingoldsby, director of campus life and student involvement at Mercer, said the campus held two weeklong voter registration drives during the current semester, and that a political lecture series featuring two political science professors and a journalism professor was held Oct. 15-17.

Mercer also held a mock election that involved 490 students and 127 staff and 90 faculty members. Overall, Obama beat Romney 388-268, with the other votes going to a third-party candidate.

“It was just a way to get students involved and excited and interested in the political process,” Ingoldsby said, adding that it was difficult for her to generalize the political feeling of the entire student population. “It’s easy to look at national trends and say that students are disenchanted with the process or self-involved with their own lives and not think about the broader picture as much.”

Ninety-two percent of the students who took part in the mock election said they plan to vote. Of the issues, 545 chose the economy as the most important issue, which was more than the next two most-popular choices -- education (223) and social issues (211) -- combined.

Fort Valley State University

Fort Valley State was the only Middle Georgia campus where students identified an issue that superseded the economy -- paying for college.

“Romney will cut out the ways people can pay for college,” said Yakeem Jordan, 18, a freshman psychology major. “We won’t be able to pay for it (in Romney’s plan).”

Though they didn’t mention it by name, Jordan and others likely were talking about the amendment sponsored by Romney’s running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, whose plan called for reducing Pell Grants by changing eligibility requirements, according to U.S. News & World Report.

However, the website notes that Romney’s education plan doesn’t include specifics but promises to “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.”

Ashley Peterson, 20, a junior studying veterinary science, said she expected Obama’s race to be the ultimate deciding factor among students at the historically black university.

“I think (most students) like Obama because of his race rather than politics,” she said.

Georgia College & State University

Rich has been conducting live polling during this fall’s presidential debates, with students pressing buttons on remote controls when they like or dislike one of the candidate’s responses.

“Principally, we’re hoping to learn how Georgia College students perceive the candidates, if they identify with one of the candidates,” he said.

Rich said he had a mostly left-leaning crowd during the first debate, but slightly more right-learning students in the other two. Yet during all three presidential debates, the responders scored them in favor of Obama.

Rich said the difference between student polling and national polling after the first debate was likely due to students having more specific interests. When talking about the economy, for example, students were more concerned with jobs rather than tax cuts or Social Security, or other issues that divide the candidates.

“Because health care and national debt weren’t identified as prevalent issues (among those being polled), that portion (of the debate) didn’t resonate with students,” Rich said.

He credited the formats of the second and third debates as being more conducive to helping students understand the candidates’ positions on issues.

Rich said he thinks the Milledgeville campus population is split roughly equally between Romney and Obama supporters.

Rebecca House and Michael Valerio, both 20-year-old nursing majors, said they are voting for Romney in November.

They’ve seen some activity from the College Republicans on campus, but not much from the College Democrats. Most of their political conversations have not taken place on campus.

“(The day after) the (first) debate, there was a lot of talk,” Valerio said. “Facebook just blew up.”

Ellen Axenborg, 20, a freshman from Sweden, said she was surprised at the lack of political activity on campus. She said Swedish students become very involved in politics at an early age. She perceives American students as being either “very engaged or not engaged at all.”

“There are some people who are really interested in the issues,” she said. “Others are copying the views of their parents. ... In Sweden, we’re definitely more engaged. I don’t really know why.”

Ben Ottoson, 20, a junior chemistry major, said earlier this month he wasn’t registered to vote and was undecided between Obama and Romney anyway.

“I have a hard time trusting either one of them,” he said.

Wesleyan College

Like Georgia College, Wesleyan also is surveying students to get their thoughts on the debates, said political science professor Tom Ellington, who also is a Macon city councilman.

The Wesleyan students’ responses after the first debate were merged into a national study being conducted by the University of California-Davis. While about 60 percent of the overall national respondents said before the first debate that they planned to vote for Obama, 52 percent of those surveyed indicated Romney won the debate.

Wesleyan held a convocation about voting, in which students were told how to obtain absentee ballots or register to vote.

Before the second debate, there seemed to be a fairly equal split between Obama and Romney supporters on campus.

Alanna Ross, an accounting and business major who said she hadn’t heard much debate on campus, said she supports Obama, not so much because of what he stands for, but because she doesn’t like Romney.

“(Romney) was starting to bother me,” she said. “He was flip-flopping on too many issues. ... I’m not 100 percent pleased with Obama. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m voting against Romney, not for Obama.”

Rebecca Navarre, a 20-year-old senior majoring in applied mathematical sciences, identified herself as “extremely conservative” but thinks the campus overall is more liberal.

“I agree with most of (Romney’s) platform ideas,” she said. “For the most part, (at Wesleyan), I’m in the minority.”

Macon State College

Macon State has arguably the most diverse campus in the midstate, and students interviewed there seem to think neither candidate has a majority of support among the student body.

Kaleb Clark, 21, a sophomore studying accounting, said he agrees with most of Romney’s principles.

“I agree with his policies,” Clark said. “He’s strong on China. I like the fact that he’s a businessman, because the government is like a business.”

Clark said his most important issues are job growth and anything relating to student loans.

Paige Wright, 18, a theater and communications major, said she and her roommates often discuss the candidates, but there hasn’t been much talk in her classrooms.

She said unlike many other black students on campus, she remained undecided after the first debate.

“I know a lot of people who are voting for Obama,” she said. “The majority of young, black students are. But I’m undecided. I don’t like either one. ... I don’t like that Obama spends too much money, and Romney is taking away too much money from everyone. ... My vote goes to the Green Party.”

Ashley Hopkinson, newsroom coordinator for the Center for Collaborative Journalism, contributed to this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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