Are Young Voters Less Enthusiastic This Time Around—and Will It Matter?

There’s a fair amount worth unpacking in Mark McKinnon’s piece on Obama’s struggles with the declining enthusiasm of young voters. But I think this part is key:

President Obama is in trouble. Just 50 percent of college-age youth approve of his performance overall; that’s 5 points less than their 25-to-29-year-old peers. While that general measure is trending upward from a low point in December 2011, just 39 percent of the younger millennials approve of his handling of the economy. And only 43 percent think Obama will win reelection, with 29 percent thinking he will lose and 28 percent unsure.

Finally, in a head-to-head matchup with Romney, Obama wins only 41 percent support, a significant drop from actual votes from this group in 2008.

But the picture isn’t bright for Mitt Romney, either.

“Although this generation is not as supportive of President Obama and Democrats as they may have been in the historic 2008 campaign, this in no way implies that the Republican Party has successfully captured the hearts, minds, and votes of millennials,” says Harvard Institute of Politics polling director John Della Volpe.

In direct competition with the president, Romney wins only 29 percent support. That’s less than what Ron Paul would win against Obama in an imaginary matchup and less than the poll support John McCain won from young millennials in the spring-2008 survey. And when Romney’s supporters were asked if they would volunteer for his campaign, less than a third said they would engage versus more than half of Obama’s supporters.

Young people aren’t going to come around to Mitt Romney. Not in any great numbers. So the important question is whether or not they will feel energized to come out for Obama. As far as the GOP is concerned, a lot of young people staying home on Election Day would constitute a victory on this front.

It’s also worth pointing out that the importance of young voters is a bit overrated, sometimes, and might not matter as much as people think unless the election is close. 2008 wasn’t close, and in the wake of Obama’s victory one pollster “re-ran the numbers as if there were no voters under 30, [and found that] the only states that would switch to Republican presidential candidate John McCain are Indiana and North Carolina.” That is, Obama still would have won.

That said, what doesn’t show up in this sort of analysis are the countless hours young people poured into volunteering for the campaign in 2008. There’s not going to be anywhere near the same volunteer enthusiasm this time around.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.