FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The college vote is up for grabs this year — to an extent that would have seemed unlikely two years ago, when a generation of young people seemed to swoon over Barack Obama.But they have ObamaCare, right?
Though many students are liberals on social issues, the economic reality of a weak job market has taken a toll on their loyalties: far fewer 18- to 29-year-olds now identify themselves as Democrats compared with 2008.
“Is the recession, which is hitting young people very hard, doing lasting or permanent damage to what looked like a good Democratic advantage with this age group?” asked Scott Keeter, the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan group. “The jury is still out.”
How and whether millions of college students vote will help determine if Republicans win enough seats to retake the House or Senate, overturning the balance of power on Capitol Hill, and with it, Mr. Obama’s agenda. If students tune out and stay home it will also carry a profound message for American society about a generation that seemed so ready, so recently, to grab national politics by the lapels and shake.
All those questions are in play here in Larimer County, about an hour north of Denver, for the more than 25,000 students at Colorado State University.
Larimer, like much of Colorado, was once solidly Republican but went Democratic in the last few elections and is now contested by both sides. It is seen as a signal beacon for an increasingly unpredictable state.
Kristin Johnson, 23, like many other students interviewed here in recent days, said that a vote for Democrats in 2008, however passionate it was, did not a Democrat make. But she bristles just as much at the idea of being called a Republican.
“It’s like picking a team when you really don’t want to root for either team,” said Ms. Johnson, a communication studies major, who said she was undecided about parties and politics going into the general election campaign.
She is not the only one. Because the university draws about 80 percent of its enrollment from within Colorado — mostly from Denver and its suburbs — it is also a sort of mirror within a mirror for Colorado’s political culture. Moderate and conservative views are common; a campus monoculture of liberalism is not.
Leah Rosen, a history major from Denver, still vividly remembers witnessing a fistfight outside her dormitory room on election night in 2008 between Obama supporters and McCain supporters. National exit polls back then gave Mr. Obama a 66 percent edge among young people, to 32 percent for Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee.
Larimer is the focal point for a nationally watched House race in Colorado’s Fourth District, where Betsy Markey, a Democrat, is fighting for a second term in a traditionally Republican seat, against a Republican challenger, Cory Gardner.
Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat appointed last year to fill a vacant seat, is also in a toss-up contest against a Republican candidate, Ken Buck, who has local connections as the Weld County district attorney in Greeley, 20 miles southeast of Fort Collins.
Many students here, especially seniors nearing graduation, said that worries about the economy, and about getting a job after graduation, had filtered through the campus, dampening enthusiasm for Democrats in Congress and Mr. Obama.
Well, maybe not.