President Obama’s got problems for 2012. Sure, he just hauled in a record $86 million in cash. But the fundraising success masks a very big issue: Obama has lost the youth vote — he just isn’t trendy any more. Which is good news for Republicans: President Untrendy gives us a better chance to win. As a generation of media-encouraged Obama idealists has turned economic realists, Republicans can appeal to this age bracket to take the prize next year.
Political campaigns have historically discounted the importance of the youth vote — for good reason, generally, as young voters have tended not to show up on Election Day. Obama has changed that dynamic, perhaps permanently. The Millennial generation, meaning 18-to-29-year-olds — whom I wrote about a few weeks back — mattered in the 2008 election because Obama’s campaign recognized and exploited them. His campaign team engaged them through ground-breaking use of social media and grassroots outreach. It worked. Youth voted for Obama by a margin of 2 to 1, and 3 million more new voters visited the polls than in 2004. The Millennials accounted for 18 percent of the vote, and it was the third consecutive presidential election with increased youth turnout.
Young voters in 2008 were attracted to Obama as a symbol — no one knew exactly what he stood for, but voting for him sure did feel good. Nearly three years later, many of them are increasingly disgusted to learn that he apparently doesn’t stand for much. What’s his position again on gay marriage? On Afghanistan? On Iraq? Health care? The skyrocketing debt? They care little about having a symbolic leader when they can’t find jobs. The Hope and Change he promised have long since become a punch line.
When Obama spoke at the University of Maryland on Friday, student Jerome Lincolns explained how his attitude toward the president had shifted since Obama last visited the campus in 2009. “He’s like a new car: First it’s really awesome, and then you realize it’s a lot like the other cars,” Lincolns told USA Today.
Last month, a youth-advocacy group called Generation Opportunity released a bunch of very telling statistics. Headed up by a former Bush-administration official, Paul Conway, the group polled 600 likely voters in the Millennial age group. My key take-away from their findings: It’s the Obama economy, stupid.
Although young voters were embraced by the Obama campaign, they haven’t felt the same love from the Obama administration. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed by Generation Opportunity say the current administration fails to serve their generation. Less than a third approve of the president’s approach to youth unemployment. Over three-quarters have already put off, or expect to put off, a major life change or purchase because of the poor economy. Just under half are waiting to buy a home, and 27 percent are waiting to go back to school. Around one-quarter are delaying starting a family, and 18 percent are holding off on marriage.
Republican insiders I’ve spoken to in recent days almost all seem resigned to an Obama victory. That’s understandable, but not pre-ordained. All you have to do is look at those numbers from Generation Opportunity. The youth are feeling pretty dismal about the direction of Obama’s America. More than half aren’t confident that America will be the global leader in ten years. More important, they overwhelmingly view out-of-control spending and debt as the biggest threat facing America. Almost three-quarters want to see government spending reduced and do not support raising taxes. These positions sound — gasp! — Republican.
So Obama’s problem with this core constituency is an opportunity for the GOP. An opportunity — but not a slam-dunk. The youth voters are overwhelmingly moderate and issues-oriented. However, as Margaret Hoover pointed out in her new book, American Individualism, voting patterns tend to be set after three presidential elections. For about a third of the Millennial generation, this decisive third election will be the 2012 race. It’s going to be a very tough fight. Obama is going to have a record war chest. And Republican strategists are rightly worried about a primary season that could continue into next May, which would leave the eventual nominee weakened. But he or she might be able to find bounce in the younger generation.
I’ll be honest: President Untrendy is still going to seem a lot cooler than any nominee we choose. There’s no point in trying to out-hipster the man (when we went for “energy” last time, we got Sarah Palin). That doesn’t mean we should cede the Millennial battlefield. What it does means is that we must keep the message simple and focused, and we must talk directly to the young voters. We know what they want, and we know Republicans can deliver it better than Democrats. Targeting young professionals and canvassing college students — people among whom the economic anxiety of the past two years is particularly acute, and who face the highest barriers to employment — should be a main focus of the Republican effort. Trendy has never paid the bills, and this time around it might not get that many votes, either.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.