The Great Recession took a sledgehammer to young job-seekers. As a Rutgers University study released this week reported, only half -- 51 percent -- of college graduates since 2006 are employed full-time. Eleven percent of them, the study found, are unemployed -- a figure well above the national rate of 8.1 percent. Another 12 percent are working part-time.
Imagine, then, the difficulty that other young people, those without the advantage of a college education, face in trying to find a job. Avoiding unemployment isn’t easy for most in this job market, but the struggles are acute for men and women younger than 30.
Their hardship explains President Obama’s dilemma this November. The White House incumbent enjoyed the overwhelming enthusiasm of young voters in 2008, winning them by a two-to-one margin over Republican John McCain -- an incredible edge even for a group that usually leans left. But replicating that success could prove difficult when so many of those same voters are beset by personal financial difficulty.
To do so, the Obama campaign might have to rely on a culturally oriented pitch, one that can tout the president’s support of same-sex marriage. That’s not necessarily a losing strategy, because many young people strongly identify with the president’s views. But it’s also one that Republicans bet won’t be enough to prevent them from making inroads on Election Day.
“On the question of whether Team Obama can replicate the success, the answer is unequivocally, absolutely not,” said Paul Conway, a veteran GOP operative and president of Generation Opportunity, a right-of-center group that seeks to engage young people in politics.
Conway’s organization is just one Republican effort to court youths into the GOP this election. This week marked the launch of Crossroads Generation, a spin-off of the Republican behemoth American Crossroads. The group, which works in conjunction with the College Republican National Committee, the Young Republican National Federation, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, paired its launch with an announcement of a $50,000 online ad buy targeting young swing voters in eight battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia.
The message for both efforts is simple: The economy is bad, and Obama is to blame. Issues like the deficit and unemployment rate have a strong pull on all voters, youth included, Conway said, because they have been so particularly hard hit by the recession.
It’s an issue he believes will trump all others this election. “If those folks don’t have jobs or means to fulfill their dreams, it doesn’t matter how powerful [Obama’s] message is,” he said. “You will simply not be able to restore that base of the coalition to 2008 levels.”
Obama, who has visited an array of college campuses during the early weeks of his campaign, has countered with a pitch that includes touting proposals to ease student-debt burdens. But his best ally in the fight for the 30-and-under population might be cultural issues, like his recent embrace of gay marriage. Sixty-three percent of the Millennial generation, those born in 1981 and after, support same-sex marriage, a poll from the Pew Research Center found.
Galvanizing young voters to overturn misguided social norms appeared to be a message the president implicitly pushed on Monday during his commencement address at Barnard College, during which he received rapturous applause every time his support of same-sex marriage was mentioned.
“Don’t accept someone else’s construction of the way things ought to be,” Obama said. “It’s up to you to right wrongs. It’s up to you to point out injustices. It’s up to you to hold the system accountable -- sometimes to upend it entirely.”
In a recent appearance on PBS' NewsHour, Democratic National Committee executive director Patrick Gaspard maintained that young people would take into account that the Obama administration has actively sought to help them on economic as well as other issues.
"We are seeing a tremendous amount of enthusiasm across the country in campuses every time we go out and have conversations about the things that this president has done to help move young people up the economic ladder," Gaspard said. "For instance, when we go out, young people know that this president doubled the size of Pell Grants and the number of Pell Grant recipients in this country.
"They are rightly proud that he made good on his commitment to pull us out of the combat mission in Iraq, which was a compelling issue for young people at the time. And they are also thrilled that this president has made it possible for 2.6 million young people to continue to be on the health insurance of their parents, which of course is tremendously important in these tough economic times."
The president can also count on the greater diversity of younger voters --particularly in the Latino community, a group that has seen its numbers soar among youths in particular. In 2008, Hispanics under 30 accounted for a greater percentage of the total vote than did their older counterparts. That diversity means the president’s pro-immigration stance, another cultural issue, could resonate more strongly, even among non-minority voters.
“Not only are there more young voters from minority communities, even if you’re not Latino you’re more likely to be sitting in college classes with people who are,” said Kristen Soltis, a GOP consultant working with Crossroads Generation.
The potential for cultural messages to resonate among young voters is a warning to Republicans, she said. The party must make sure to not only criticize the president, but present its own agenda for improving the lives of young people.
“If the argument back doesn’t have that, I think there’s a risk of young voters saying, ‘Who’s going to make my life better?’” Soltis said. “And if there’s not clear answer to that question, then the other issues can play a more decisive role.”
Mitt Romney won’t win the youth vote, but he doesn’t need to win it. He can hope that an economic-themed message will bring enough of them into the fold to put him over the top.
“In some of these states where the margins are likely to be very tight between Republicans and Democrats,” Soltis said, “even a small sliver of voters under 30 changing their minds this time around could wield really big results.”