The youth vote in the current presidential campaign is a topic of wide discussion. The big question is: Will President Obama be able to win among young people by the 2-to-1 margin he pulled off in 2008? Recent polling shows Mr. Obama has lost much youth enthusiasm and is polling barely above 50 percent with this demographic. In light of this trend, is it possible that Mitt Romney has a chance of winning the youth vote?
Historically, Republicans have lost within this voting group. Ever since the 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971, changing the voting age from 21 to 18, the GOP has won the youth vote only twice — in 1984 and 1988. The GOP has come close to winning the youth vote previously. George W. Bush nearly won with 46 percent in 2000 and 45 percent in 2004.
In 2008, John McCain lost the youth vote 66 percent to 31 percent. There are two prime reasons why he lost and lost this badly. First, he was representing the unpopular incumbent party and facing a tough economy and a war-weary nation. Second, he lacked any substantial youth outreach effort compared to the monumental exertion of the Obama campaign, not only policywise, but using pop culture, the cult of personality and new media to reach out.
So what has changed in four years? Two quotes from the Republican National Convention two weeks ago summarize this change:
“You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him,” Mr. Romney said of Mr. Obama.
“College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” Paul Ryan said.
Those two quotes embody the type of disillusion that has taken place in youth all over the country. This does not mean young people personally dislike Mr. Obama and his “cool” persona, but they are beginning to realize the hope and change they were promised has not been realized, and many of the youth find their situation even more dire than it was before 2008.
Policywise, take a look at hard statistics, which show the unemployment rate at 8.1 percent. Look further, and you’ll see that youth unemployment is 15 percent to 20 percent — that’s nearly 1 out of 5 young people. Youths also are looking not just at the national debt, but at their own debt, questioning whether they can afford the steep increase in tuition costs and whether they will find a job in an economic environment dubbed the Great Recession.
Mr. Romney is capitalizing on youth disenchantment by learning from Mr. McCain’s mistakes and proactively courting the youth vote. He has a campaign team and coalition in place: Young Americans for Romney, dedicated solely to reaching out and mobilizing 18- to 29-year-olds and young professionals. An effort like this hasn’t been seen since the Bush 2004 youth effort. It doesn’t hurt to add Mr. Ryan, age 42, to the ticket — a youthful figure who has energized the campaign and provided a much-needed, youthful surrogate for the Republican Party.
Still, Republicans should not dismiss the Democrats’ youth effort. Though youth dissatisfaction is rampant, Mr. Obama’s campaign has not given up on this vote and has employed an aggressive effort to hold onto it. They have dedicated more than 100 campaign staffers to online outreach using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — principal communication devices for youth — and have instituted a “Gen44” youth outreach program, going after not only college students but young professionals as well.
You might ask, why is so much attention being given to this voting bloc? Approximately 46 million 18- to 29-year-olds are eligible to vote in 2012, and they will make up one-third of the electorate by 2016. The trending of the youth vote might very well determine the voting patterns for a generation of Americans.
So can Mr. Romney win the youth vote with the wind at his back and a strong team in place? As someone who has worked on the college and young professional outreach effort for the last three Republican presidential campaigns, I have seen a drastic improvement by the Romney team compared to the McCain team. But is it enough to win?
Consider this: Polls show that for the first time in American history, youth feel they will not match their parents’ level of success. I guess that’s understandable, as too many are looking at those fading Obama posters wondering when they will be able to “get going with life.” The young people who jumped on the bandwagon of “hope” in 2008 are finding themselves in a pretty hopeless spot. At this point, anything is possible.
Christopher Malagisi is president and founder of the Young Conservatives Coalition.