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Judy’s Notebook: The Youngest One-Fourth of Us

Students at Ohio State University cast their votes at a campus polling place November 4, 2008 in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Other than their age and their massive numbers, what’s different about what voters under 30 are looking for in this election? After spending a weekend in and around Columbus, Ohio, I was reminded again that although this group of voters has its own set of priorities, young people can often be swayed by the same arguments as older voters.

The economy, as with the rest of the electorate, is issue number one, and in some cases, even more urgent. The youngest members of this cohort came of age watching their parents and other relatives get laid off their jobs, lose a house or a big chunk of their retirement savings. The cost of education and the scarcity of employment opportunities have made many twenty-somethings jaundiced before their time. Some, like Austin Niece, who graduated this year, blame President Obama: “I don’t like the government spending a lot of our money.” Others, like Jason Good, an athletic trainer at Ohio State University, told me: “Obama inherited an economic mess….you can’t change everything in four years.” He was still deciding whom to support.

But OSU law student Katie Wall Rabenstein, headed for a career as a criminal defense attorney, said her chief concern has to do with social issues, including gay rights: “How someone cares about people who are different says a lot about their character.” Rabenstein, of Milan, Ohio, is voting for the president, yet predicted he will not win by the overwhelming margin he did in 2008 because of the challenges he’s faced since.

Pollsters unanimously agree there will be slippage in President Obama’s performance from four years ago, if only because the appeal to “be a part of history” has faded. But Peter Levine, who heads the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University, says the president is helped by Mitt Romney’s positions on two policy sets, starting with social issues like abortion, contraception and gay rights. These are largely “damaging and distracting” for Romney, he says, with young people who have distinctly more liberal views than he does.

One other area where many of them part company with Romney is on national security. Levine describes the younger generation as big believers in a “collaborative” foreign policy, a view that international crises are best solved by working with the United Nations and other partners, rather than going it alone. John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, says if Romney wants to appeal to younger voters, he will stay away from foreign policy issues. A recent Pew poll backed him up. When asked about each candidate’s response to the recent violence in Libya that led to the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stephens, only 15 percent of young voters said they preferred Romney’s comments, while 54 percent preferred the president’s. A majority of older voters also sided with Mr. Obama, but not by such a lopsided margin.

Having said all this, the president still needs to get his young supporters to the polls. The enthusiasm of 2008 has mostly disappeared; in its place is a more realistic view of the political process that will lead many voters under 30 to skip voting altogether. Both candidates are doing what they can to reach the remainder – young people who understand they have something at stake in the outcome. But it won’t be possible without OSU undergraduates like Miranda Onnen, volunteering for Romney because she believes in his low-tax policy, and Mary McKay, working for Obama because he will “support education for children from working class families.” They will both be going door-to-door, and dorm-to-dorm, between now and Election Day.

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