A study done by the Pew Research Center in September showed that registration for voters under 30 has dropped significantly since the 2008 election. And even when they are engaged in the political process, seldom do vice-presidential debates attract much interest from college students.
But after Republican candidate Mitt Romney's surprising performance against President Barack Obama two weeks ago helped the challenger surge in the polls, the match-up between the vice-presidential nominees took on new significance.
Consequently, college students across the country-liberals, moderates, and conservatives-watched as Republican Paul Ryan faced off against Vice President Joe Biden last Thursday at Center College in Danville, Ky.
Political journalism senior Cody Holt, from conservative Patrick Henry College (PHC), said Republicans built expectations too high following Romney's strong performance: "The presidential debate was so astonishing because it came out of nowhere. The VP debate was over-hyped, and it under-performed."
Though Holt wished Ryan would have pushed out more economic numbers and shown himself to be the geeky superstar he's reputed to be, he thought Ryan did a serviceable job and portrayed himself as intelligent and humble, understanding his role as second-in-command.
Aaron Craddolph, a recent psychology graduate from the University of California Irvine, a liberal institution, said he assumed that the mathematically inclined Ryan would sweep away the experienced yet blunder-prone Biden. Craddolph was glad when the debate turned out to be close: "Joe Biden was confident and seemed to be fed up with the Romney campaign. Ryan did a good job of portraying a cool personality, even though he didn't know his information."
Jacob Carmona, commenting on the Students for Obama website, wrote, "I feel like Ryan doesn't understand that our military in Afghanistan is preparing Afghan military to take up the positions and that we need to send our troops home."
One of the night's few surprises came from the moderator's questions on abortion and religion. Alan Ramey, international relations major at American University in Washington, D.C., was relieved to hear Ryan explain that the Republican platform makes exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and physical health of the mother. But he supported Biden's position that his faith shouldn't influence his positions on particular issues, especially women's rights. Ramey thought Biden's stance would appeal more to voters.
But, Holt disagreed.
"Ryan's right," he said. "You can't have a personal opinion that something is murder and separate it from your supposed politically just platform."
PHC senior government major James Flath supports the Republican abortion exceptions as smart politics. It's not perfect, but "any step in the right direction should be seen as a victory for the pro-life cause," he said.
Emily Wilson, a politically moderate anthropology major from Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., said she could not connect with Biden due to the difference in age, even though she believed he articulated his position well. Wilson also thought Biden came across as unlikeable and disrespectful to Ryan.
Lindsay Edwards, a history major and government minor from the University of Virginia, also noted Biden's smirks and guffaws during Ryan's responses: "There is nothing funny about foreign policy and unemployment," she said.
The attitudes of both candidates surprised Devin DeFrancesceo, a University of Richmond political science major. "I was really surprised at how mean-spirited Biden was," he said, adding Ryan's passivity also surprised him. "I don't like Ryan, but he is smart."
But much of the students' perceptions of the debate depended on their political leanings. For independent or undecided voters, Holt gave the debate win to Ryan: "Biden came off as a bitter, angry, condescending man, whereas Ryan came off as sweet and intelligent."
The debate performances have at least made the race more interesting and could encourage more students to tune in for tomorrow's second verbal tussle between Romney and Obama. Despite what polls indicate about young voters' nonchalance about the election, they have a lot riding on the country's next leader.
The next four years are critical for current college students looking to enter the work force or grad school, said Alexandra Nykamp, a political philosophy and economics major at Kings College in New York City. Young voters want a leader who will help the economy, not hurt it.
"As college students, we have to be responsible for our own actions, ownership, and stewardship of the country," Flath said. "College students need to be more involved in the 2012 debate. This election will make or break our future."