In March, on the eve of the Illinois primary, over a thousand Bradley University students gathered to hear Mitt Romney. Dressed casually, many in shorts and T-shirts, they stood outside on an unusually warm spring day in Peoria. They listened as 30-year-old Republican Representative Aaron Schock introduced Romney, and watched as Romney was presented with a bright red Bradley University hoodie. When Romney took the microphone, he passionately made the case for young adults to embrace the GOP.
“Every trillion dollars this president amasses, every year, guess who is going to pay that?” he asked. “Not me. I’m gone. I’m too old to pay it back. You’re going to pay it back.”
But there was no indication that Romney’s message resonated. Some of those watching called out “Obama 2012.” The first question was pointed: “So you’re all for like, yay, freedom, and all this stuff,” a woman said. “And yay, like pursuit of happiness. You know what would make me happy? Free birth control.” A short distance away on the campus, a group of young adults held up a blue sign spray-painted with this message: “Romney Fleecing America!”
Romney is not the first Republican candidate who has struggled to win the youth vote. No Republican candidate has won among 18-to-29-year-old voters since George H. W. Bush did in 1988. (He lost it in 1992.) And Obama’s unprecedented strength among that age group — he beat John McCain by 34 points — makes it crucial for the Romney campaign to successfully woo some of those young adults.
“The youth vote will be a key component to our winning coalitions in states and we will put the structure and resources in place to be successful (which includes surrogates),” e-mails a Romney aide.
Romney is up against fierce competition. Obama is fighting hard to keep young-adult voters, visiting three colleges in battleground states this week to make speeches centered on his support for government programs that make attending college cheaper. His campaign thought it had a winning issue by touting Obama’s support for extending the current 3.4 percent interest rate for subsidized federal loans for a year, only to be undercut when Romney announced his support for the extension days later. (Neither Obama nor Romney has offered any concrete suggestions about how the extension — estimated to cost $6 billion — should be paid for, although Romney did say it should be paid for with offsetting cuts.) The campaign is also fighting back against Obama’s general student-loan push: “What young people really want is not student loans, but a way to pay for their student loans,” said Schock yesterday in a conference call with reporters arranged by the Romney campaign.
In two recent polls, Obama led Romney among 18-to-29-year-olds, by 26 points in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and by 17 points in a Harvard Institute of Politics poll. Both polls, when compared with 2008 numbers, show significant drops in enthusiasm among young adults for Obama, suggesting that while they may not pull the lever for Romney, they may also have less inclination to show up to vote for Obama.
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign is working to appeal to more young voters by highlighting the dire fiscal situation. In an infographic released this week, the campaign noted that “half of new college graduates are unemployed or underemployed,” citing an Associated Press study. Other facts cited: “The youth unemployment rate is double the rate for all Americans,” “the number of young Americans living in poverty has increased by over 23 percent,” and “the number of young adults living with their parents rose to a record 5.9 million.”
“President Obama gets an ‘F’ for failing our youth,” former Colorado senator Hank Brown told reporters yesterday in a Romney-campaign conference call. Brown, a former president of the University of Colorado, added, “Four years ago, the president was able to fool a number of our college students into supporting his campaign, and the result has been the highest level of unemployment for youth in our country’s recorded history.”
Schock, meanwhile, highlighted the change in the young-adult vote in 2008; according to CNN’s 2010 exit polls, there was only a 12-point gap between young adults who voted for Democrats and those who voted for Republicans. “When you look at how young people voted in the 2010 midterm election, after they actually saw President Obama, who he was, the policies he advocated for, they not only turned out in record numbers . . . but we had a much larger group of young candidates,” Schock said, noting that all but one of the House members under 40 are Republican.
“Whether it’s candidates or the voters, there was a huge shift in their view of President Obama and ultimately, how they cast their vote,” he added. “I think it will be the same in 2012.”
As for Romney himself, he is working to remain optimistic. “I think this is a time when young people are questioning the support they gave to President Obama three and a half years ago,” he said in a statement released Monday. “He promised bringing the country together; that sure hasn’t happened. He promised a future with good jobs and good opportunity; that hasn’t happened.”
“And the pathway that he pursued is one which has not worked,” Romney added. “Young people recognize that, and I think that’s why they’re going to increasingly look for a different approach.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.