Romney Wants Young Voters To Give Up On Obama

Young voters helped secure President Obama's victory in 2008. But the economy has hurt them in the last few years, and now Republican challenger Mitt Romney sees an opening.

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Congress is staring down an important deadline this week on student loans. The interest rates for federal student loans could double if lawmakers don't act, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. This debate is about more than just loans though. Each party is also trying to win over young voters. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, President Obama is trying hard to maintain the support of young voters which helped him to victory four years ago.

ARI SHARPIRO, BYLINE: Even President Obama has lost track of the number of times he has stood in front of TV cameras and told Congress to act on student loan rates. Last week he took the lectern yet again in the White House East Room with dozens of college students standing behind him.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If this warning sounds familiar, we've been talking about this for months. Congress has had the time to fix this for months. That's part of the reason why everybody here looks impatient.

SHARPIRO: The drumbeat on student loans is just part of President Obama's effort to convince young people that he's still their man. In April he did a college campus tour where he filled arenas with cheering supporters, picked up pizzas at a dive bar, and chatted with late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon about an old college photo.

OBAMA: This was a Goodwill...

JIMMY FALLON: Purchase?

OBAMA: Purchase.

FALLON: I like - is it a futon or a couch behind you with the sheet over it. That's so classy.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Well, along with the milk crates, right?

FALLON: Yeah, exactly.

SHARPIRO: In 2008, voters under age 30 fell hard for Barack Obama. They voted for him over John McCain two to one, a wider age gap with their parents than in any presidential election since exit polling began. The Romney campaign doesn't expect to reverse that phenomenon this year, but they hope to make a pretty big dent in it.

MITT ROMNEY: I think young voters in this country have to vote for me if they're really thinking about what's in the best interest of the country and what's in their personal best interest.

SHARPIRO: Before an April campaign event in Pennsylvania, Romney told reporters all the reasons he believes young voters should support him. National deficits, student loan debt, high unemployment - in short, a bad economy.

ROMNEY: When you look at 50 percent of the kids coming out of college today can't find a job, or can't find a job which is consistent with their skills - how in the world can you be supporting a president that's led to that kind of an economy?

SHARPIRO: The answer is, they're not supporting the president as much as they used to. Many polls show that Mr. Obama has about 10 percent less support among young voters than he did last time, and over the last six months his numbers have been dropping in this group, says Jason Johnson, a political scientist at Hiram College in Ohio.

JASON JOHNSON: The bad news for Mitt Romney is these numbers haven't necessarily improved his standing amongst young voters. It's just led to more young voters saying that they're undecided and they aren't sure, which may mean they're persuadable, or it might mean they're just holding out and eventually they're going to go back to Obama in November.

SHARPIRO: Or they could just stay home altogether. So to keep them engaged and win over the persuadables, both sides are revving up their efforts. It's not just about winning this round. People's voting patterns take shape early in life, and almost 17 million people have become old enough to vote since 2008. Alex Schriver is president of the College Republican National Committee.

ALEX SCHRIVER: This August we'll send 60 paid staff to over 10 states around the country to help our efforts to recruit, train, and mobilize in those swing states.

SHARPIRO: His group now has a superPAC, and the conservative group Crossroads, which has raised tens of millions of dollars to defeat President Obama, just launched Crossroads Generation, aimed at young voters. On the left, the Obama campaign has hit 12 states in its Greater Together Youth Summit tour. College campuses, of course, are popular recruiting grounds, but Rod Snyder of Young Democrats of America says that's only reaches about a quarter of voters under the age of 25.

ROD SNYDER: While that's the low-hanging fruit, if you stop there, you are not getting most of this youth vote. So we do have a much broader focus than that, and many of our chapters(ph), many of them are young workers, young professionals, young families, and so a lot of times those will be reaching people who are, you know, not in college.

SHARPIRO: Because while soldiers returning from war and high school seniors and new parents may all technically be young voters, they have very different concerns from each other and from the typical four-year college student. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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