Obama Faces Tough Terrain in 2012

Expert says young will not turn out for Obama like they did in 2008.

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Turnout is "virtually certain" to decline among key Democratic constituencies in the 2012 election from 2008, which would be bad news for President Obama, says elections expert Curtis Gans.

In a new study of voting trends, Gans says next year's campaign will be conducted "against a totally different backdrop" than 2008. Four years ago, Obama benefited greatly from voter dissatisfaction with the economic downturn, and also gained support because of "an emotional outpouring of hope reposed in [his] unique and eloquent candidacy," drawing many highly motivated voters including college-educated young people to his campaign. Further, Obama benefited from the fact that African Americans went to the polls in record numbers to support him as the first African American major-party presidential nominee.

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Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, D.C., says African Americans may be motivated to back Obama again in very high numbers next year, but other elements of his 2008 coalition are much less motivated, especially young people.

"There is within the current generation a strain of idealism, as is often the case with the young and educated," Gans writes. "But by and large, that idealism has been channeled, sometimes by school fiat, into service programs that have not pruduced political involvement and, for most, sustained societal commitment. It is a generation that happened on the scene during the polarizing experiences of 2004-2008 and national politics offered an outlet for that idealism. But, in large measure, because of the failure of their efforts, through no fault of their own, in 2004 and because Obama the president did not fulfill the hope invested in Obama the candidate, there has been an enormous sense of disappointment among those young who had been previously politically active and the current crop of college-resident young do not have the same compelling motivation to engage as those who preceded them.

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"For these and other deeper systemic reasons, it is virtually certain that there will be a substantial dropoff in the level of youth participation and voting in 2012."

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