Four years ago, young voters flocked in their tens of thousands to hear Barack Obama tell them they could change the world.
But youngsters who helped make Obama president have grown up in the human detritus of the Great Recession and many see dreams of a bright future dimmed as they struggle to find work.
Hope pulsated through massive, youthful crowds at university campuses as Obama surged to victory in 2008 and defied conventional wisdom when his youthful legions actually showed up at the polls.
Sixty-six percent of the under 30s voted for Obama over his Republican foe John McCain, according to exit polls.
But recent surveys show Obama’s advantage may be slipping. A CNN poll had him down 10 points on 2008, leading his new Republican rival Mitt Romney by 56 to 37 percent.
The Obama campaign recognizes the stakes and sent the president on a two-day swing through battleground states where the youth vote could make the difference.
“You’ve got a steady stream of cynics who are telling you change is impossible, you can’t make a difference, you won’t be able to close the gap between how things are and how they should be,” the president said in Virginia on Wednesday.
Obama also slammed those who tell young voters “‘you were naive last time… when you had all that hope and change stuff.’
“But, you know, I don’t believe that. I don’t think you believe that,” Obama said before running off a list of achievements from ending the war in Iraq to passing health care reform, to convince young voters their vote was not wasted.
While youth excitement seems down, Obama did rip up considerable enthusiasm on his college tour, drawing crowds of 6,000 in Iowa, 13,000 in Colorado and a rowdy 7,500 in Virginia.
But the pain in the millennial generation may give Romney an opportunity to — if not beat Obama among youth voters — at least cut into his margins in a knife-edge election.
New research by Generation Opportunity, a non-partisan group working with Americans aged 18 to 29, shows the depth of pain among America’s youth.
Eight-nine percent of young people said the economy was having an impact in their daily lives, and many had cut the amount of money they spent on entertainment, vacations and groceries. Seventeen percent had put off a lifetime moment like a wedding or family reunion.
Yet their struggles do not seem to be prompting apathy: 76 percent of those polled said they planned to vote in November.
Generation Opportunity president Paul Conway, a veteran of 100 political campaigns, said he has never seen such political electricity as that currently roiling youth voters.
“These folks are very, very acutely aware of what is going on,” he said, adding that “they are not beholden to any political party.”
The facts about youth unemployment are stark: unemployment among 18-29-year-olds stood at 12.7 percent, in July, according to Generation Opportunity.
Romney’s answer is to adopt a blunt economic argument to youngsters.
“Half the kids coming out of college this year — half — can’t find a job, or a job that’s consistent with a college degree,” he said in New Hampshire this month.
Peter Levine, director of the non-partisan youth research think tank CIRCLE said Republicans were right to think they can make up ground.
“There is a big opportunity for Romney, part of the reason is that four years ago, Obama’s support among youth voters was completely out of line with historical precedent,” he said.
Levine also argued that while any segment of voters could be important in a close election, youth voters, who could number over 20 million, were particularly important.
Had young voters been completely discounted in 2008, McCain would have won three traditionally Republican states captured by Obama — North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia.
Obama’s core supporters still seem receptive to his arguments that it would be wrong to change economic course despite tough economic times.
“I don’t think it’s the president’s fault. He doesn’t have much control (though) he does have some,” said Keith Abel, 20, an industrial technology student at Iowa State University who attended an Obama rally on Monday.
“I’m willing to give him more time if he’s asking for more time. He’s got a plan, and he needs some more time.”
Fellow student Lauren Gabel said Romney’s focus made her uncomfortable.
“It’s a huge part of it of course, but focusing solely on the business aspect misses a part of what’s actually going on,” she said.
Senior Obama aides say the president will continue to make his case to young voters in coming weeks in a peak period for registering voters.
“He will remind young voters that it is showtime,” and place the key choices of the election before them, said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
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