In a recent public appearance, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made an unusual campaign promise: he assured a college student questioner that ifhe voted Republican in 2012, he'd have a job when he graduated. That promise struck many observers as extravagant, if not downright absurd. Given the depth of the current recession, no one's in a position to deliver an economic turnaround -- let alone major job growth -- on a dime. But Romney's rhetorical excess is a sure sign that Republicans are zeroing in on youth -- and more broadly, on "Millennial" voters (18-29 year olds) -- as a strategic wedge to try to defeat President Obama in 2012.
Millennials, of course, provided just such a strategic edge to the president in 2008, electing him by a better than 2-1 margin. They were the cornerstone of his pioneering "get-out-the-word" viral campaign that pushed him over the top against establishment candidate Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and that bolstered the party's prodigious "get-out-the-vote" effort on election day. And Millennials did turn out in record numbers, with 80% of the 10 million first-time voters coming from this age group alone. If anyone embodied the Obama mantra of "hope and change" -- indeed, shouted it from the rooftops -- it was Millennials, especially young Blacks and Latinos excited about the prospect of electing the nation's first president "of color."
But, of course, that was before Obama began backing off his commitments on one issue after another, from immigration and cap-and-trade to the closing of the Guantanamo military base and the war in Afghanistan. Even worse, Millenials have started feeling the weight of the flagging economy, and spiraling debt, at disproportionate levels. Unemployment among 16-24-year-olds stands at 18.1%, nearly double the national average. And student loan debt , at a whopping $1 trillion, has surpassed credit card debt for the first time in history. If as the old saying goes, youth are "the future," for many Millennials their future's looking bleaker by the day.
Consider the polls. From a high of 84% in early 2009, Obama's favorability rating among voters under 30 declined to 55% in February. It now stands at just 46%, with more disapproving of Obama than approving for the first time since his election. Even more threatening, perhaps, is a sharp change-over in party identity. White millenials have gone from majority Democrat to majority Republican - a combined 18% shift, far surpassing the broader national trend. The magnitude of that shift was apparent in the November 2010 mid-terms, when Millennial support for Democratic candidates fell by 50%.
But can the GOP really capitalize on Obama's failures in 2012, in an election that hinges as much on personality as program? Some pundits are suggesting that a higher percentage of disaffected college-age youth may simply stay home on election day, magnifying the GOP's natural advantage with older voters. But youth turn-out has increased successively during the last three presidential cycles, and some pollsters are predicting that youth may comprise over a quarter of the electorate in 2012, up from 18% in 2008 and 2004. That means the key issue isn't so much turnout as how these young voters actually cast their ballots.
And if current polls are any indication, while Obama still leads the GOP competition, it's not by much, just 50%-41% over Mitt Romney in a survey conducted by Stanley Greenberg, a leading Democratic pollster. That's even less than the 10-point margin John Kerry enjoyed over George W. Bush when the Democrats lost badly in 2004. Conservative-leaning youth groups have begun mobilizing in record numbers and are exploiting the same social media that Obama's youth corps monopolized in 2008. Only now, their rallying cry -- jobs, jobs, jobs -- could well carry the day with Millennials, dwarfing Democratic appeals on war and peace issues or the environment, and dooming Obama's re-election.
Is there still time for Obama to recoup his lost standing? The White House clearly hopes so. Its latest jobs plan includes special incentives to employers to hire youth, on top of provisions in ObamaCare that allow children to remain on their parents' health plans until age 26. But these are stopgap measures at best, and many youth know it. A rising percentage who left home to attend college are going back to live with their parents, just to survive. And if that increases the likelihood that they vote like their parents -- over 30 voters tilted toward John McCain in 2008 - Obama may well be finished. Just ask Millennials: according to a Harvard poll released two weeks ago, by a 11-point margin, most expect their former icon to lose.
Follow Stewart J. Lawrence on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stew_law