During a visit to the University of Montana Oct. 8, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina spoke briefly about the political fire ignited among America's youth by President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Their passion, sparked by the unconventional tools of the digital age, helped sweep Obama into office.
But Messina's comments painted a discouraging picture for the future of that movement. He said voters ages 18 to 29 continue to rally around the issue of climate change, but the enthusiasm generated by the Obama camp has cooled over the last nine months.
Many credit the 2008 election phenomenon to Obama's presence at the younger generation's digital feeding grounds, mainly Twitter and Facebook. According to a civics study by Tufts University, an estimated 23 million voters under 30 cast their ballots last November—3.4 million more than in 2004. Time Magazine dubbed it the "Year of the Youth Vote."
Messina offered no explanations why that passion subsided so rapidly. He only cited anecdotal evidence that it has. Cody Bloomsburg, a 23-year-old journalism grad student at UM, remembers pressing the issue with Messina.
"I asked him about it. I said, 'Well, are you seeing a lot of the youth vote walk away?' He replied, 'Yeah, people got busy. They were happy that Obama got elected, and then they kind of returned to their lives. We've seen a decline in young people working for Organize for America and being involved.'"
In the wake of Messina's visit, Bloomsburg and seven other UM journalism students grew increasingly puzzled about the change of heart during the first months of Obama's presidency. They began asking young voters in Missoula a compelling question: If you could recast your 2008 presidential vote, would you?
That reexamination of the election lies at the core of "Rethink'08," a graduate seminar that seeks to answer why youth enthusiasm is dwindling. So far the group has focused its efforts online through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook—the same tools used by Obama to drum up support.
"During the election last year, people seemed so very fired up, especially young people," says Anne Clausen, a 28-year-old exchange student from Denmark and one of the group's more vocal members. "What happened? Where did all the enthusiasm go and why did it go away? There are so many issues still to resolve. When there are so many big issues, you really have a feeling that this country is, in a way, at a crossroads. Where are things going to go from here?"
Clausen, Bloomsburg and Rethink'08 hosted a kickoff event in the University Center on Nov. 4. They asked students how attitudes toward Obama have changed in 2009, using photos to illustrate the answers they received.
"That's where you really get the physical reaction," Clausen says. "And it's been very, very different. Some people go 'thumbs up' a year ago and 'thumbs up' now. Others have really changed their point of view, for many different reasons. We had a gay guy write on a piece of paper, 'gay and waiting.' He didn't feel like Obama had done enough in that direction. Other people think Obama's really screwed up the economy.
"There are a lot of different opinions out there," Clausen continues. "People are really fired up about it, and if you ask them, they do have an opinion, they do care. The weird thing is it doesn't translate to people doing stuff."
So far, Rethink'08 has leaned heavily on Twitter feeds to distribute information on Obama's performance and gather public comment. And Facebook has helped draw some traffic, Bloomsburg says, but not nearly in the numbers the group feels necessary to propel the study forward. They've been struggling to branch from the campus population into the broader Missoula community.
"It's tough to just go out on the street and engage people in a political discussion," Bloomsburg says. "We're trying to steer people toward the website and get the Missoula community involved there."
Sidestepping the challenges of social networking, Rethink'08 approached several Missoula individuals directly to create a string of young voter profiles. Bloomsburg says these interviews, specifically his own with Missoula native Chavvahn Gade, shed light on what drew youth to activism in 2008 and what could well be driving the youth vote away.
"She's still very active in politics and still definitely approves of Obama," Bloomsburg says of Gade, who interned in Obama's Senate office during the election. "Where she was disappointed really was in the Democratic Party itself, particularly [Sen. Max] Baucus. She feels like she worked so hard to get Obama into office and was very excited for it. Now that the Democrats control everything, she feels they should be getting more done."
Rethink'08 plans to host an online debate in the coming weeks between two yet-to-be-named local representatives from the left and the right. By mid-December, the group plans to open its forum to people outside the United States—again using Twitter and Facebook—which Clausen hopes will offer a valuable outsider perspective on the decline of youth enthusiasm and the importance of global politics in reigniting that interest.
"We don't want to just be putting more information out there," Clausen says. "We really want to turn this thing around so people can have their say."