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Heffner: Barack Obama can't count on today's disillusioned young voters

"Young Americans must realize that elections are not only about presidents, and citizenship is a lifetime commitment.," writes Alexander Heffner. Photo Credit: William Brown

Young voters were a decisive ingredient in President Barack Obama's successful primary and general election bids in 2008. But the millennials who helped engineer his victory -- from their social media imprint to their house-to-house neighborhood canvasses -- appear to be missing in action this campaign cycle.

I've been covering the campaign's college vote for PBS, and so far I've visited Long Island University, Union College in Schenectady and Binghamton University in New York, as well as Princeton University and the Claremont Colleges in California. Based on what I've seen, the political mania that four years ago built an explosive network of grassroots Obama supporters and an active ground game is lacking this time around.

Save one backpack button, I saw no Obama apparel on the New York campuses -- nor did I meet great numbers of energetic student surrogates. This is a disconcerting omen for the president's re-election effort.

After having grown deeply connected to President Barack Obama -- his personal style and brand of politics -- in 2008, young people's relationship with the president may now be impaired. Over the past four years, stories have mounted across the country that suggest millennials are less enthusiastic about the political process than they were in 2008. It's not surprising when you consider that the soaring rhetoric of change Obama expressed on the campaign trail four years ago ended up being no match for partisan politics as usual in Washington.

Among these three New York schools, I saw the most engaged students on the Brooklyn campus of LIU. Student leaders expressed their fear that a Mitt Romney administration could lead to the demise of Pell Grants and other forms of government-funded, need-based financial aid. After a campus panel discussion, I saw a few dozen students congregate around the voter registration booth set up outside the auditorium hall.

But students at Binghamton and Union expressed concern about apathy on their campuses, which they say is rooted largely in disgust with Washington's gridlock and inability to improve their economic situation.

There are exceptions: A student at Union has launched the campus' first-ever student-produced political newsletter. And several students at Binghamton are involved in Democrat Dan Lamb's campaign for Congress.

But cognizant of the Electoral College's significance in choosing a president, many young New York voters feel detached from a process that, they say, doesn't fairly weigh their votes. They point out that Obama and Romney hardly surface in the dominantly blue or red states. Instead, they focus on the so-called Battleground States of America -- and alienate the vast majority of citizens.

It's ironic that a system designed to bring equity to all the states has now marginalized the youth demographic of the electorate. In the minds of many millennials, the Electoral College in 2012 undercuts the inclusiveness of American democracy -- and they use that to rationalize their lack of participation.

During a Q&A session after discussion titled "Engaging Youth" at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, one Marist College Democrat suggested that young people are less likely to vote because government officials are not hearing their concerns or witnessing their deepening debt and joblessness. Beyond youth disenchantment with the electoral process, even those with partisan affiliations aren't convinced their candidate will improve an economy that is severely troubled for recent graduates.

At the same event, the library's chief of education essentially asked me when American youth would become more engaged: Your children, your children's children?

It's a good question. Young Americans must realize that elections are not only about presidents, and citizenship is a lifetime commitment. Across New York State, a handful of competitive races are poised to shake up the state's congressional delegation. But the disconnect between political realities -- including New York's irrelevance to the presidential campaign -- and student voters and their economic plight is eating away at the fabric of citizenship in New York.

Alexander Heffner is a special correspondent for PBS's "Need to Know" covering the campaign's college vote.