Young voters still support Obama, unlikely to repeat 2008 turnout

Will the youth vote, which was so integral to President Obama’s victory in 2008, repeat its performance at the polls? A new survey from Harvard University indicates that, while still largely in support of the president, the so-called “millennial” generation is significantly less likely to express that sentiment in November.

Among likely 18-to-29-year-old voters, 55% say they will vote for Obama, 36% say they will vote for Mitt Romney and 9% are undecided, and Obama leads 48% to 26% among the entire demographic. That’s accompanied by an increasing sentiment that Obama will win the election, with 52% predicting his victory, compared to just 30% last year.

And, reflecting one of the Obama campaign’s central talking points, 62% of millennials think that it takes more than four years to undo the problems he inherited when he took office, compared to 33% who think that he has failed in spite of his efforts.

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But turnout at the polls among millennials is expected to be “nowhere near the levels seen four years ago,” Trey Grayson, director of the Harvard Institute for Politics said, and Romney’s young supporters identify themselves as more likely to head toward the ballot box, 65% to 55%.

Just 48% say they will definitely vote in November, out of the 67% who are registered to do so. That’s a significant drop among 18-to-24-year-olds (the only group polled in 2008) when 63% said they would definitely be voting, compared to 48% this year.

John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Institute of Politics, said that a decrease in anticipated participation is “one of the statistics of most concern to our group,” adding that “enthusiasm is down significantly across the board.”

Della Volpe separated those unlikely to vote into two segments, one that isn’t comprised of “political people” and voted in 2008 largely due to the historical significance of electing the first African American president.

The other is choosing not to vote despite being politically engaged. Instead of opting to take part in a political system 43% see as broken and 31% see as uninterested in issues important to them, they’re “rolling up their sleeves and working in their communities,” Della Volpe said.

That’s reflected by the survey’s finding that the younger generation perceives volunteer work within the community as more effective than political engagement, 31% to 19%.

Along with being split among voters and non-voters, the millennial generation is split between its older and younger members. Older members, whose political identities were forged by President George W. Bush’s administration, 9/11 and the Iraq War are more disposed toward Obama, while younger members, who are coming of age amid widespread economic uncertainty and hyperpartisanship, lean more conservative.

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The key for Romney, then, is to aim his efforts toward the younger members of the generation, with a message focused on their insecurity about the economy. But, as Della Volpe says, the optimal opportunity to do so may have passed.

“Republicans had a chance to seize on a moment of doubt,” he said, noting that support for Obama dipped below 50% a year ago before climbing steadily upward.

Harvard University’s survey was conducted between Sept. 19 and Oct. 3 among a sample of 2,123 18-to 29-year-olds with a margin of error +/- 2.1 points.

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