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In Swing States, Elusive Youth Voters are Politically Jaded and Still Undecided

September 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Mitt Romney and President Obama hit the campaign trail, the candidates know that a high young voter turnout may be the key to winning or losing swing states. But with polls saying 40 percent of young people are disappointed with the political system, the candidates have their work cut out for them. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney were slugging it out again today on the campaign trail, both of them in the battleground state of Ohio, and both of them mindful of the need to turn out younger voters, who went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama in 2008, but who are proving more elusive this year.

I traveled to the Columbus area this past weekend ahead of the candidates to find out just how elusive.

WOMAN: Fired up.

STUDENTS: Ready to go!

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ohio State University students about to head out from an Obama campaign office to register voters yell a familiar refrain.

MAN: Fired up!

STUDENTS: Ready to go!

JUDY WOODRUFF: They are a coveted voting bloc for the president in this fiercely contested swing state.

Four years ago, Mr. Obama won 18-to-29-year-olds nationwide by 66 percent to 32 percent, a margin so large, young people were credited with putting him over the top in several key states.

NOEL FISHER, student: Have you guys all registered to vote?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Surveys suggest he’s sure to capture the majority of the youngest voter bloc again.

But after four years of watching the president grapple with the realities of governing, they’re not expected to give him another 2-1 win.

NOEL FISHER: You guys all registered to vote?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eighteen-year-old freshman Noel Fisher says getting his peers to vote for President Obama in 2012 is crucial.

NOEL FISHER: I would say it is the biggest, the largest split between ideology between the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate.

The Republicans right now are trending extremely conservative, and it’s just — I don’t — I don’t think we have room for any of those extremes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But for all the enthusiasm of these volunteers, national surveys of young voters show a more complex picture.

John Della Volpe is director of polling for Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

JOHN DELLA VOLPE, Harvard Institute of Politics: It’s almost night and day, Judy. You know, whereas young people four years ago were among the most enthusiastic members of the electorate, we see major dissatisfaction with the process, with the campaign, and far less political engagement than we had seen four years before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hoping to capitalize on that dissatisfaction, Mitt Romney’s campaign is using new targeted smartphone applications in an effort to pull young voters toward their candidate.

Twenty-one-year-old OSU senior Niraj Antani says it’s working.

NIRAJ ANTANI, student; I have had people come up to me who joined College Republicans who say, listen, you know, I fell into the hope and change trick in 2008.

And we have seen his records, and we want jobs when we graduate from college. And so, you know, we are considering voting for Governor Romney or we’re voting for Gov. Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At last weekend’s game, young fans of Ohio State University’s beloved Buckeyes had football, not politics, on their minds. Asked who they might support, a mixed picture emerged.

Jason Klaus voted for Mr. Obama four years ago. But now 26, and in the business world, he says he’s switching to Romney because of his plan to keep taxes low for those with higher incomes.

JASON KLAUS, Romney supporter: They are the ones who own the businesses, and they are the ones who are putting the money back in the economy and providing the jobs. So I believe that would be a better plan for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-four-year-old athletic trainer Sarah Abrams also voted for Mr. Obama. But this time around, she says she’s undecided.

SARAH ABRAMS, athletic trainer: I’m not sure yet. I’m still like — you know, like watching and basically like researching. So I will make my decision soon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OSU senior Krystina Hollowell says she identifies with the Republican Party, but has more liberal views on social issues than candidate Mitt Romney.

Do you know how you are going to vote yet?

Krystina Hollowell, student: To be honest, no, I really don’t. I’m more of — I, like, lean towards Republican.

But then socially how Romney is like very against like abortions and like birth control and that type of stuff for like women and same with like gay marriages, I’m more towards like Obama’s plan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, says one set of issues that could hurt Romney with this age group is his conservative stance on social policy.

PETER LEVINE, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement: I think all the social issues is a complete distraction and damaging with young people.

Because on the whole, they are pretty liberal on social issues, and they are also not interested in them as we found from our poll.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For whatever reason, many young voters are still up for grabs.

JOHN DELLA VOLPE: The largest segments of undecided voters in America I think will be found on college campuses.

We’re seeing more than 10 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds at this point in the campaign are still undecided. So that is a significant number.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s more significant when you recognize how large a group it is.

JOHN DELLA VOLPE: We have more Millennials today than baby boomers in this country. Almost one in four American citizens is a part of this younger millennial generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That fact is not lost on the candidates. Earlier this month, President Obama came to Columbus and used the Buckeye football stadium in an analogy to describe Mitt Romney as out of touch.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Under my opponent’s tax plan, 106 fans at the game would get an average tax cut of $250,000, and about 100,000 fans would have to pay for it.

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: And, by the way, the ones who would get the tax break are the guys in the box seats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two days earlier, Romney was on another Ohio college campus.

MITT ROMNEY (R): You’re going to see rising take-home pay again. You’re going to have young people that come out of colleges like this that can actually get jobs.

Today, half the kids coming out of college can’t find work or college-level work. This is — this is not the American experience, the American dream they planned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whatever the arguments are on and around college campuses, the larger challenge facing the Obama camp is the toll the economy has taken on the younger generation. Many have come of age seeing their family’s financial struggles.

They themselves are facing an unfriendly job market with an unemployment rate of over 12 percent for 20-to-24-year-olds and an unemployment that jumps to 20 percent for those who are under 20.

At a jobs fair in Colorado, another swing state both candidates want to win, 24-year-old Laura Wulf has been searching for work since June. Wulf is also paying for college.

LAURA WULF, Colo.: I had to end up moving back home with my parents. So that’s added a great burden on them, on me. It’s stressed our family life and it’s stressed me and my fiancé out quite a bit, and it’s just really hard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A declared independent, Wulf says she voted reluctantly for Mr. Obama in 2008 and says she will likely give him more time to fix an ailing economy.

LAURA WULF: I think he’s done OK, but he had one heck of mess he had to walk into when he came into presidency.

And that’s after everything that Bush did. You know, I think if he had another four years to figure everything out, maybe, just on a whim and a prayer, he would be a lot better than what he is now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But 18-year-old Jesus Martinez, who has been looking for a job since he graduated from high school in May, has a different take.

JESUS MARTINEZ, Colo.: I will probably vote for Romney — well, for sure, I’m voting for Romney. I don’t know.

Maybe under new leadership, there might be some kind of — people might get excited about it, you know, start hiring again. Maybe they might think this economy might start coming back up after a new president is elected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Like Jesus Martinez, almost half of the nation’s young people are not in college, a group the Romney camp has in mind when they stress economic uncertainty.

Earlier this month, Josh Romney showed up in Colorado at a campaign event directed at young voters.

JOSH ROMNEY, son of Mitt Romney: We’re really focused on not just college-educated, but all youth voters, you know, all voters, anyone that cares about the economy and making sure this economy is strong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dorothy Stoneman, the founder of the non-profit YouthBuild USA, says young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more apt to base their vote on their immediate circumstances.

DOROTHY STONEMAN, YouthBuild USA: In 2008, they had this hope. They did believe in hope and change. I think some of them are now disappointed because they got their hopes up so high and they haven’t seen the kind of change that they imagined. Right?

Now, they’re not mad. They’re disappointed. And they’re not quite sure, so they’re confused about what does it take to create the change which they know their neighborhoods need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Columbus, only miles from Ohio State University, Shannon Follins worries about her neighborhood. Follins, who was pregnant at 16, now has two children, works an overnight shift at the Waffle House and attends classes during the day.

She will vote for the president because she thinks he is more in touch with the needs of her community and her children.

SHANNON FOLLINS, mother: I don’t want my son growing up to be no gangbanger, shooting people, or in and out of prison. I don’t want my daughter to be a statistic, pregnant, and having kids at an early age. I don’t want to go through none of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the county fairgrounds in rural Delaware, Ohio, 21-year-old first time voter Levi Mayse, who finished high school, but is not in college, also says he will not vote for Romney.

LEVI MAYSE, voter: You can tell that Romney’s out of touch, I mean, by the things that he says. You know, how I should start a business and borrow the money from my parents, you know.

And my parents don’t have the money and certainly I cant borrow from something that they don’t have. You know what I mean?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s voters like 18-year-old Philip Anderson working himself through junior college whom both campaigns will have a tough time reaching.

PHILIP ANDERSON, student: Yes, I’m definitely not going to vote.

I mean, I may vote for local things, I probably will not vote for president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With four in 10 young people telling pollsters they’re disappointed in the political system, the candidates have their work cut out for them.