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Courting Young Voters 101: Candidates Shouldn't Bank on Obama to Save Them

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If you went on an awesome date, but didn't receive a follow up text message asking for a second one until a few weeks later, chances are you'd soon be smooching someone else.

It's entirely possible that the students at the University of Wisconsin will have a similar reaction to the hype that will undoubtedly surround President Obama's visit to their campus today, as the courtship of America's young voters resumes in a high-profile way after a nearly two-year hiatus.

This time around, conditions are significantly less sexy.

Not only is 1-in-5 young Americans unemployed, we found in our recent Rock the Vote Young Voter Poll that 59 percent of them say they are more cynical about politics than they were during the historic 2008 election. Moreover, for those Democratic candidates hoping to ride President Obama's popular coattails, we've got some bad news. They're not as popular as they once were, and young people also told us that they don't particularly relate to political parties. Instead, they want to hear directly from individual candidates who are doing something about the issues they care about. So if Congressional reps are just starting to head out to football games and concerts in youth-dense battleground districts, with only one week left before most states' voter registration deadlines, banking on President Obama's rhetorical gifts on a single campus is too little, too late.

It's not that young voters are coy and playing hard to get. More than 80 percent of them told us in our poll that they still believe their generation has the power to change this country. Likewise, look what happened last week in arguably the most exciting spike of the 2010 cycle, when public figures who've cultivated street cred with this demographic stepped up to the plate. Lady Gaga sparked a social media firestorm that led to a surge in calls to local congressional offices when she called for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Hundreds of thousands of young people have indicated on Facebook and Twitter that they're planning to attend Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's dueling rallies on the Washington mall to "Restore Sanity" and to "Keep Fear Alive." They want something to believe in, and they want to express themselves and participate.

What's missing is the ingenuity, creativity and honesty that captivated them in 2008. We don't want to give up. This is our future and there is no way we will let that get away without a fight. This is our reality, not just a campaign slogan. We voted and elected leaders because we wanted to believe, because we do believe, in our chance at the America we grew up believing in, and we were hungry for leadership and a real path to get there.

It's encouraging to see leaders like President Obama getting back out there, hosting a conference call to college journalists and making a few speeches on a few campuses, but is that really the best the revolutionary new media campaign machine (and all the candidates now building on their ground-breaking achievements) can do? Rock the Vote invited senate and gubernatorial candidates in some of the hottest races this cycle - including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and North Carolina - to participate in forums with young people, and virtually every single hopeful representative declined, with a few notable exceptions. If candidates don't engage with young people, like any demographic, they won't produce results.

If more candidates were actively targeting young people, they might be able to answer the concerns of Joey Sanchez, a 23-year-old recent jobless college graduate now living in South East Florida who shared with our Field Outreach Director, Annie Lorenzana, the following message:

"I started college in 2005 with the dreams of graduating, getting a job, and becoming a successful business man. In 5 years I earned my bachelor and master degrees, was student body president, played division one college soccer, and volunteered in the local community. I achieved a 3.4 GPA and rose to the top in every situation. As captain of the soccer team I led my team to the NCAA tournament. As Student Body President I created initiatives to enhance campus culture. And as I volunteered, I built lasting relationships with children who have been diagnosed with autism. Unfortunately, by the time I graduated the economic climate shifted from a bright, promising future to a dull and jobless environment. I have invested the past 5 years of my life preparing for my career but this unexpected shift in the economy has left me stranded after graduation. I have sought guidance from the career center, contacted local chamber of commerce, and asked family and friends for personal favors. They all have the same response: 'Organizations have just finished laying off employees and there are no current openings.' I am working day in and day out to find a job but there are very little out there."

Joey is representative of many young people we've spoken to on-the-ground, who would like to continue the momentum his generation built in 2008, but who is still struggling just to take care of himself in this dilapidated economy. These young people still need inspiration, and they want to hear from candidates on the issues they care about, particularly on jobs.

Where is the man or woman that feels like one of us, who is willing to lay out a vision, a real one, that relates to our real lives, and a way to get there? In case it wasn't clear in 2008, we don't except any single leader to do it alone, we are willing to work hard. Unlike the youth of the '60's that the baby boomers like to compare us to, we are not the anti-government, f*ck your parents rebels who would rather fight the system than work to make it better. We like our parents (usually!), and we find value in a government that works to make our lives better, but that sentiment is fading fast when the only thing we hear about is 'filibusters' and governing that seem to be more about politics than principle.

The youth movement has taken many steps to re-energize itself, and has achieved some significant successes. We've registered and re-registered almost 200,000 voters through digital outreach and field programs on the ground. We've teamed up with stars like Lady Gaga, Pink, N.E.R.D., Passion Pit, Mike Posner, Nick Cannon, Jason Mraz and Good Charlotte to raise awareness and register voters through our online tool, at concerts, in dorms and on college campuses. A coalition of more than 30 youth organizations and media partners, including the League of Young Voters, Energy Action Coalition, Headcount, Campus Progress, Voto Latino and others, came together to form Vote Again 2010 to mobilize their peers.

We can only make a dent in this demographic on our own. The universe of young voters grows rapidly, with 13,000 young people turning 18 every day, meaning there are now 9 million new voters since the 2008 election.

So, savvy candidates, party leaders and strategists. There is an opportunity to lead. Show up for young people while you still can. Admit that you should have been there all along. Tell them what you're going to do about jobs, debt, health care, immigration, marriage rights, sexual health and college affordability. Ask them to support you. Don't leave untended your relationship with a tidal wave of young people who will comprise your electoral base in 2012, 2014, 2016 and beyond. Otherwise the next time you blast that cutting-edge mobile list you've cultivated with a text asking them for a second date at the ballot box, you might get a response that reads, "Kiss my a**."