Can Obama energize youthful voters again?

President Obama won the election of 2008 in part by winning 66% of voters age 18 to 29, giving him a huge margin of 34% among the young. Can he do it again in 2012?

Probably not -- at least, not with a margin that big. But it won’t be for lack of trying.

In a Google+ hangout produced in Charlotte, N.C., where the Democratic National Convention is getting underway, researcher Felicia Sullivan said that Obama still enjoys a big advantage among young voters, but not as lopsided as last time. A Pew Research Center poll in July found Obama’s support among young voters at 61%, and that was before GOP nominee Mitt Romney chose Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate, a move that Republicans hoped would create some buzz for their ticket.

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Among first-time voters -- those under 22, who were too young to vote in 2008 and so missed out on Obamania -- support for Obama is weaker, although he still commands a majority, Sullivan said.

It’s also not clear whether youthful voters will turn out in the numbers Obama saw in 2008; polls suggest a drop in enthusiasm.

One reason: unemployment is still deep among those 18-29, roughly 17%, said Sullivan, a scholar at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

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Nicholas Rafidi, a community college student in California’s Fresno County, confirmed the importance of that issue. Rafidi, who said he hasn’t decided how to vote yet, says there’s only one issue that’s important to him and his classmates: “Jobs.”

Rafidi said he had listened to Romney’s promises of a plan to create more jobs but complained that it didn’t include enough specifics. “What’s up with that?” he asked.

Alejandra Salinas, president of the College Democrats (and a student at the Boston College Law School), countered that she’s seeing “great energy” among Obama supporters on campuses around the country.

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And Cathleen Decker, politics editor of the Los Angeles Times, confirmed that the Obama campaign is putting considerable money and energy into organizing young voters, including a major effort channeled through social media like Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Will this week’s convention make a difference for young voters? Not much of one, predicted Andrew Jenks of MTV and Meg Turney of “All they’re going to see is Obama’s speech,” Jenks said.

Incidentally, Sullivan noted, the size of the youth vote in 2008 wasn’t unprecedented; youth turnout was higher in the 1980s. The key to Obama’s victory wasn’t turnout; it was margin.



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Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus