Last week, Barack Obama delivered speeches at universities in Chapel Hill, N.C., Iowa City, Iowa, and Boulder, Colo. The trip was, press secretary Jay Carney assured us, official government business, not political campaigning.
It’s part of a pattern. Neil Munro of the Daily Caller has counted 130 appearances by the president, vice president, their spouses, White House officials, and Cabinet secretaries at colleges and universities since spring 2011.
Obviously, the Obama campaign strategists are worried that he cannot duplicate his 66 to 32 percent margin among young voters back in 2008.
Recent surveys of young people show inconsistent results. Gallup’s tracking shows Obama leading Mitt Romney 64 to 29 percent, and a Harvard Institute of Politics poll shows him leading Romney 43 to 26 percent among those who said they had an opinion.
But a March survey of 18- to 24 year olds by the Public Religion Research Institute showed Obama ahead of “a Republican” by only 48 to 41 percent. Only 52 percent had favorable opinions of Obama, and 43 percent had unfavorable opinions.
Where the surveys seem to be in accord is that young voters are less engaged, less likely to vote and less enthusiastic about Obama than in the days when he was proclaiming, “We are the change we are seeking.”
Gallup shows only 56 percent of Americans under 30 saying they definitely will vote. Among older Americans, the figure is over 80 percent. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed only 45 percent of young people taking a big interest in the election, down from 63 percent in 2008.
Hispanics and blacks make up a larger share of the Millennial generation than of older Americans, and Obama’s support among them seems to remain high. But the Harvard survey shows that only 41 percent of white Millennials approve of Obama’s job performance, significantly lower than the 54 percent who voted for him in 2008.
Obama’s decision to campaign — er, conduct official business — on university campuses last week was not surprising. According to exit polls, there was no surge of young voters in 2008. They made up 18 percent of voters, compared to 17 percent in 2004.
But close inspection of the election returns showed that the Obama campaign did a splendid job of ginning up turnout in university and college towns and in singles apartment neighborhoods in central cities and close-in suburbs, like Arlington, Va., across the Potomac from Washington.
Consider the counties where Obama spoke last week. In Orange County, N.C., Obama won 72 percent of the vote. He did better in only one of the state’s 99 other counties, Durham, which has a large black population plus Duke University.
Obama carried Johnson County, Iowa, with 70 percent of the vote, more than in any of Iowa’s other 98 counties. He carried Boulder County, Colo., with 72 percent, a mark exceeded in that state only in Denver, one rural Hispanic county and two counties with fashionable ski resorts (Aspen, Telluride).
What Obama doesn’t seem to have done in 2008 is mobilize more economically marginal and educationally limited young people, except perhaps among blacks.
His problem this year is that there are a lot more economically marginal young people, including many who are not educationally limited.
Young people are notoriously transient, and it’s hard for political organizers to track them down. Harder perhaps this year, with many recent college graduates unable to find jobs and a rising percentage of young people moving in with their parents.
Few young Americans bothered to vote in Republican primaries, and young people’s attitudes toward Mitt Romney seem frosty. They still know little about him.
That gives him a chance to argue that Obama’s economic policies have failed and that his policies can spark an economic revival that will provide myriad opportunities for the iPod/Facebook generation to find satisfying work where they can utilize their special talents.
In his campus speeches, Obama stumped for keeping low interest rates on student loans. But young people may be figuring out that colleges and universities are gobbling up the money government pours in, leaving them saddled with debt.
It’s a side issue. The Harvard survey showed 58 percent of Millennials saying the economy was a top issue and only 41 percent approving Obama’s handling of it. Like Romney, they seem to be saying, “It’s the economy, and we’re not stupid.”