The president arrives in North Carolina. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty…)
A new poll finds a clear preference for President Obama over Mitt Romney among younger voters, a key sector of his winning coalition in 2008.
But as the president embarks on a three-state tour of college campuses to press Congress to act to preserve low interest rates on student loans, there were indications that enthusiasm was sharply down among members of the so-called millennial generation, with the sagging economy the main factor.
The Harvard University Institute of Politics survey of voters ages 18 to 29 showed Obama leading Mitt Romney 43% to 26%, up from the 37% to 26% head-to-head matchup in December.
Obama's approval rating has also ticked up since December, from 46% to 52% — a boost fueled largely by Latino voters.
The more troubling comparison for Obama is between now and 2008. On the whole, the poll found that young voters were less likely to vote and volunteer for campaigns, appearing more disconnected from politics as a whole and pessimistic about the economy.
"By every measure people have become more disillusioned and more cynical toward the overall process," said John Della Volpe, polling director for the Harvard Institute of Politics.
The economy, as it is for the broader electorate, is the driving factor. Fifty-eight percent of millennials said the economy was their top issue. For the first time in several campaign cycles, the youth turnout was likely to drop, said Trey Grayson, director of the institute.
"There were some factors that led people to increase engagement in '02, '06, '08 — Katrina, Iraq, Afghanistan, not agreeing with Bush, 9/11, and obviously Obama and the use of new tools to mobilize," Della Volpe said. But now, "you have a generation that grew up literally in the throes of a great recession and saw significant, negative consequences to that in the choices that they and their families had to make. Where surviving, staying in college, paying your loans, getting an education trumps just about everything else."
It may be one reason why the youngest sub-section of voters surveyed, ages 18 to 21, were somewhat more likely to lean Republican or conservative.
Obama hopes to address that unease as he focuses on the issue of interest rates for student loans. His two-day trip will take him to North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa.
More than 7 million students who need to take out new loans this year face a doubling in student loan interest rates under the popular Stafford loan program, unless Congress votes for an extension to keep lower rates in place. Some Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to extend the current low rates because of the cost to taxpayers — about $6 billion a year.
But notably, Romney made a point of saying Monday that he agreed that the rates should be temporarily held at 3.4%. His campaign, meanwhile, is hitting the president on the very issue young voters say is now their top priority. Romney cited an analysis by the Associated Press that showed more than half of new college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and that the youth employment rate is double the unemployment rate for all Americans.
"Gov. Romney believes what young Americans want and need is a new president who will champion lasting and permanent policy changes that both address the rising cost of a college education and get our economy really growing again," spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Obama still holds an advantage in terms of mobilizing young voters. The survey found that 17% of Obama voters said they were very likely to volunteer for his campaign if asked; another 35% said somewhat likely.
Only 5% of Romney voters said they were very likely to help, while 27% said somewhat likely.
Original source: Poll: Young voters prefer Obama, but enthusiasm has waned