FASHIONABLE teenagers and 20-somethings dressed in skinny jeans, brogues and chunky sweaters, carrying books and laptops, hang out and chat. Others dash across the university quad between classes, clutching paper coffee cups, headphones clamped to their ears.
It’s late afternoon and as the sun drops it casts a golden glow on the dome of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library.
It could be the opening scene of dozens of Hollywood films but this is the real world, or at least as close to it as life gets on an Ivy League campus.
Like their movie counterparts, the young people gathered around the foot of the university steps shine with potential and unrealised ambition. In nine days, these students will face a choice at the ballot box which will shape the world they will inherit.
Four years ago, young people like these were Barack Obama’s army, the demographic force that helped propel him into the White House. They campaigned and voted for him in huge numbers, wore Obama’s image on badges, plastered his posters over the walls of their dorms, sang his name at election rallies and wept when he was elected.
But that was four years ago.
Now the “president for change” wants another term. The economy never soared to match Obama’s rhetoric and the world these young people will emerge into is uncertain, a place of unpaid internships, short-term contracts and scarce opportunities.
In a café in the basement of the university, the coffee has gone cold and the staff are piling chairs up on tables as they clear up for the day. But the atmosphere is lively at a corner table, where students are talking about the issues that will decide this election.
“In the past four years we’ve seen anaemic, if any, growth in employment, anaemic growth in GDP, we are seeing lower quality jobs being generated, students who are graduating are having to move back in with their parents because they can’t find employment,” says Nashoba Santhanam, a first-time voter and the president of the Columbia University College Republicans.
Tyler Trumbach, another student Republican, believes US government spending is out of control and sees Republican challenger Mitt Romney as the man to rein it in and get the economy booming.
He says: “We need to cut spending across the board. It’s got to the point where American people have bought into the idea that we can have everything we want, we just need to put it on the government credit card and worry about it ten, 20 years later. The spending problem is not going to affect my parents’ or my grandparents’ generation. It’s going to affect our generation.”
Trumbach mentions that he is writing his thesis on Thatcherism and the way Margaret Thatcher turned neo-liberal economics into a populist movement. “We love Thatcher,” says Santhanam. Trumbach adds: “I know she wasn’t so popular in Scotland.”
The Republican students believe Romney will eat into Obama’s lead among young voters. “Romney has managed to capitalise on young people who don’t have jobs or who have jobs and are annoyed at how much they are paying in taxes, those who have graduated with huge student loans and have no means of paying them off, or those who have only been able to get a job at [fast food chain] Wendy’s,” says Santhanam.
While the Columbia Republicans describe themselves as a “strong and vocal minority” on campus, the Columbia University Democrats have seen their numbers swell since Obama took office. They include Austin Heyroth, who along with dozens of fellow students takes part in weekly Democratic phone banks, making calls to voters in swing states on behalf of the Obama campaign.
“Young voters are going to be particularly important this time, both in terms of turnout and also young people are volunteering again in large numbers to campaign for Obama,” says Heyroth. Along with 150 fellow students, Heyroth is going to Ohio, one of the biggest and closest run battleground states, to campaign on behalf of Obama the weekend before the election. With polls showing the race between Obama and Romney tied nationwide, the two candidates are focusing their campaigns on the handful of battleground states which will decide this election. They include Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Young voters are being aggressively courted by both camps, with Romney trying to exploit the disappointment some young voters feel about Obama’s time in office.
On campaign stops from Iowa to Ohio last week, Romney co-opted Obama’s 2008 message of change, calling for “real change” against Obama’s “status quo” and promising that, if elected, he would bring about “big change”.
In an interview with MTV on Friday, Obama emphasised the importance of voting for young adults, saying “there’s no excuse” not to vote.
Seventeen million first-time voters will go to the polls in 2012. Experts say their political views have been strongly shaped by the harsh economic conditions in which they have grown up.
In 2008, 66 per cent of voters aged under 30 voted for Obama. In 2012, polls suggest a split in the under-30 group, between those old enough to remember “Obamamania” and younger, first-time voters. A recent Harvard poll shows Obama’s lead at 23 points over Romney in the 25-29 age group, compared with 12 points in the 18-24 age group.
With just nine days to go until the election, Romney is trying to build his momentum, describing himself as the frontrunner and accusing the Obama campaign of stalling.
The Democrat’s team insisted it had the edge when it came to ground operations. “We’ve never stopped building the grassroots campaign that we started in 2008,” said Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director. “We all know, and we’ve said from the beginning, this will be a close election, and our organisation is going to make the difference.”
Just as they did in 2008, young volunteers are playing a significant role in the Obama campaign.
Downtown in Washington Square Park, the trees are a riot of autumn colour. A popular meeting place for generations, the park is the place locals go to celebrate, protest and relax. A small crowd has gathered around a trio of buskers who play swing jazz on trumpet, banjo and double bass. Music and the shouts of children in the nearby playpark fill the air. A group of 20-somethings is rehearsing a dance piece in front of a camera crew, while nearby three jugglers throw hoops in the air to the delight of two small boys. Dog walkers, tourists and locals share the network of paths which criss-cross the park.
In a far corner, a dozen dogs bark and yap as they chase around a “run” enclosed by a wire fence. Sitting on a bench opposite, eating a sandwich, Francis Bellow, 23, is one of thousands of young Americans who have returned to higher education after being unable to get a good job. “Ideally I’d like to be working right now,” he says, adding that he does not blame the president for the fact he is not. “Obama’s done the best he could over the last four years. I don’t like Mitt Romney. He’s out of touch with how the world works.”
As well as the young, Romney and Obama are battling for women voters, who outnumbered men at the polls by 10 million nationally in 2008. Like many women, Carolina Cabada, 20, remains unconvinced by Romney’s stances on social issues. “I don’t think a Romney world would be a good one for me to live in,” she says, adding that if Romney became president and repealed Obamacare as he has pledged to do, she, like other insured American women, would lose her entitlement to free birth control. She says: “Under Romney, life would become more expensive for people like me.”
Many first-time voters in 2008 felt they were helping make history. The challenge facing Obama this time round is that young voters may not feel motivated to turn out and vote. For Mattie Forde, 21, a fashion merchandiser whose adult life has been lived against the backdrop of recession, deciding who to vote for feels like choosing between “the lesser of two evils”. He says: “I feel an obligation to vote but this election just isn’t exciting.”