Republicans eye battleground state youth vote out of party convention as Democrats gather in Charlotte
Just in time for students returning to campus, Republicans have launched a big push to court younger voters who overwhelmingly supported President Obama in 2008, but whose enthusiasm has since diminished with the job market.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, rallied supporters in the battleground state of Virginia a day after the party’s national convention by emphasizing how the economic downturn had adversely affected the nation’s youth. “Half of all of our college graduates are either unemployed or aren’t even working in the field they studied for,” he said.
Two days earlier, Ryan earned big applause during his GOP convention speech in Tampa with the line: “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.”
Obama had the support of 58 percent of voters aged 18-29 in a July Pew Research Poll, ahead of Romney’s 34 percent. That’s eight points less than the 66 percent of the youth vote he won four years ago.
Republicans believe they can cut that number even further. Their efforts on college campuses include voter registration drives, door-to-door canvassing, fliers and social media campaigns.
“We are launching an unprecedented effort to recruit younger voters for Mitt Romney,” said Joshua Baca, the Romney campaign’s national coalitions director. “Our message is going to resonate extremely well with younger Americans.”
One rally attendee, College of William and Mary for Romney Chair David Branton, said students’ dissatisfaction with the present political and economic climate in contrast to high hopes in 2008 offers the Romney campaign a chance to build new coalitions among this particular voting bloc.
“That’s a big opportunity for us to mobilize people who are fed up with Obama and maybe more independent than they thought,” said Branton.
Republicans have also highlighted Ryan’s relative youth to make him appear more relatable, with particular emphasis on his taste for hard rock. “My playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin,” Ryan, 42, said in his convention speech.
And in his prime-time remarks a day later, Romney, 65, opened his speech by gently ribbing his running mate’s music preferences. “I love the way he lights up around his kids. And how he's not embarrassed to show the world how much he loves his mom. But Paul, I still like the playlist on my iPod better than yours.”
The youth vote is a much-valued demographic this election. About 23.4 million 18-29 year-olds voted in 2008, the highest turnout of young voters in modern presidential history. That represented 18 percent of the total electorate. And while Democrats have regularly won this age group in recent elections, Obama’s margin over John McCain among young voters nearly doubled Bill Clinton’s 19-point win the demographic in 1996.
Republicans hope the state of the economy will be a big factor in the youth vote. A recent Associated Press survey found 53 percent of college graduates are jobless or underemployed due to the slow economic recovery. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among youth was 17.1 percent in July 2012.
Polling also suggests younger voters simply aren’t paying as much attention to the 2012 campaign. Sixty percent of voters under the age of 50 said they were thinking a lot about the 2012 election, according to a June Pew Research Center survey. That’s down from 71 percent four years ago.
Students at Ryan’s Richmond rally said the perception of diminished expectations from 2008 will make it harder for President Obama to convince younger voters to support him again.
“I think he lost a lot of his edge with student voters. Some of the students [in 2008] were just coming out of college and they thought, ‘Hey, this’ll be great, I’ll get a job, the economy will get better.’ But four years later, they don’t have a job and they’re living with their parents,” said Spencer Brown, a freshman at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. who will be voting for the first time. “We’re just getting into college. What’s it going to look like four years, six years down the road?”
Both campaigns are investing heavily in swing states like Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which also happen to be home to large college populations. Appearances by both presidential campaigns in Virginia alone within four days of each other illustrate how much they value these particular electoral votes.
“Virginia's really important. We can get this done. With your help, we can get this done,” Ryan told the Richmond crowd.
President Obama similarly rallied supporters Sept. 4 at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va. – less than 100 miles away from where Ryan appeared in Richmond – on his way to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Obama implored the Norfolk crowd to show up at the voting booths on Election Day in order to keep the Old Dominion’s 13 electoral votes in the Democratic column. “Virginia, it depends on you,” he said. “It depends on you registering to vote. It depends on you showing up to vote.”
The president also warned the assembled college students against voter apathy, indicating that would ultimately work in Republicans’ favor.
“They're counting on you – maybe not to vote for Romney, but to be discouraged,” Obama said. “I'm counting on something different.”