RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Last year, 23-year-old Rashida Hill watched the presidential debates, visited the college political party meetings and put a Barack Obama bumper sticker on her townhouse door. She voted for Obama because she felt like the election was about “being a part of something.”
But Tuesday, the Virginia Commonwealth University student didn’t bother voting in the governor’s race because, she said, the candidates didn’t give her anything to get excited about.
“The simple fact is, unless you put it in front of somebody, they’re really not going to seek it out,” Hill said.
Many of the young, first-time voters who propelled Obama to the presidency stayed home this year, a glaring absence that helped Republicans win governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey. More than 3 million voters who cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election — many of them minorities — failed to show up at the polls in either state.
Obama carried Virginia with 52 percent of the vote last year, but only 43 percent of voters surveyed in Associated Press exit polls Tuesday said they had voted for him.
Another group that solidified Obama’s victory — independents — turned their backs on Democrats this year.
In Virginia, independents in 2008 helped make Obama the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1964. But Tuesday, they voted 2-1 in favor of Republican Bob McDonnell, who easily defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds. About one in 10 Virginia voters switched their support from Obama in last year’s election to the Republican candidate for governor this year.
In New Jersey, independent voters who narrowly favored Obama last year strongly supported Republican Chris Christie for governor over Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine. Christie won 49 percent to 45 percent.
“A lot of this had to do with the collapse of the economy and future prospects for the nation and the state,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Independent voters “are very performance-oriented. They just want to know what have you done for me lately or what have you done to me lately,” he said.
Outgoing Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who also serves as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the Democratic losses in Virginia and New Jersey had more to do with local issues than Obama’s first-year performance.
Exit polling showed support for Obama remained steady despite the Republican victories.
The president campaigned hard for Corzine, making three visits to the state, including one on the last weekend.
The president’s appeal worked for Roger Johnson, a 50-year-old restaurant employee from Cherry Hill, N.J., who said he had qualms with Corzine but voted for him anyway.
“I went in to help the president. I wasn’t going to vote for Corzine,” said Johnson, a registered Republican who usually votes for Democrats. “But I did.”
About 60 percent of voters in both states said their feelings about Obama were not a factor in their vote in the governor’s race, exit polls showed. In Virginia, a quarter of voters said their vote for McDonnell was in direct opposition to Obama. In New Jersey, those who said he was not a factor were evenly divided in their support.
Even some of those who did not support Obama last year said they feel like he’s doing the best he can considering the circumstances under which he’s serving.
Linda Doland, 60, of Chesterfield, Va., said she thinks Obama is way off the mark on health care and Afghanistan, but “I think he has the best interest of our country at heart.”