It doesn’t take a political science PhD to figure out what Mitt Romney needs to do if he is to have a chance of winning the presidency in November. He must reduce the dramatic margins by which President Obama won among certain key constituencies in 2008, specifically women, Latinos and young voters.
Romney has recently launched his efforts to do just that. The week before last he had sought to lambast Obama for job losses among women. That message got muddied as Romney evaded questions about whether he supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
By comparison Romney’s focus last week—multiple attacks on Obama’s economic record aimed at Latinos and young people—went off without a hitch.
But do they have any chance of working? The predominant focus for Romney of late has been the youth vote. He sent at least seven missives on the topic last week. Of course he won’t win the youth vote outright. But, as Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post noted, Romney doesn’t have to win the youth vote, he merely has to reduce Obama’s margins of victory among them. A small enough margin will be offset by Romney’s near-certain advantage among the elderly.
And, the elderly vote in far greater numbers than young people. As Elsepth Reeve of The Atlantic Wire points out, the supposedly massive youth turnout of 2008 was not the highest in history. It will probably be lower this year. But Reeve is over-simplifying when she writes, “Aside from the fact that hardly any young people show up, they're so heavily Democratic it seems pointless for Romney to try to fight for them.” The reason so many pundits have inaccurately referred to a supposedly record youth turnout in 2008 is because the youth vote was far more Democratic than in previous cycles. Obama’s 66 percent of voters under 30 years old represented an unprecedented degree of party polarization by age. That allowed young voters to affect the outcome far more than they usually do. Obama must repeat that feat if he is to win.
That won’t be easy. On Tuesday the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government released a major poll of Americans ages 18 to 29. Overall, it should be encouraging to Obama. He led Romney 43 percent to 26 percent, with the remainder undecided.
But there are three possible subgroups of young voters among whom Romney could make inroads: whites, Latinos, and voters under 21 years old. “There’s opportunity for Romney among segments of youth vote where Obama’s underperforming compared to four years ago,” notes John Della Volpe, the IOP’s director of polling. “Almost seven out of ten young whites are not committed to Obama. He won young whites by ten points last time, now it’s roughly one-third each [for Obama, Romney and undecided].”
Romney actually leads Obama 37 to 34 percent in the poll. But the greater diversity of the Millennial generation gives Obama an advantage. Only 58 percent of respondents in the IOP’s poll are non-Hispanic white. Among the 21 percent who are Hispanic and the 12 percent who are non-Hispanic African-American, Obama leads by wide margins: 50 percent to 12 percent and 79 percent to 1 percent, respectively.
But there may be a glimmer of hope for Romney among young Latinos. When Obama took office, his approval rating among young Latinos, 81 percent, was virtually the same as his 84 percent approval rating among young African-Americans. Since then the two have diverged. While Obama has never dropped below 82 percent approval among young African-Americans, his approval rating among young Latinos tumbled to 52 percent last year, although it is now back up at 66 percent. By some other measures of an incumbent president’s strength, young Latinos more closely resemble young whites than young African-Americans. For example, the IOP poll notes, “40 percent of Blacks say things in the nation are headed in the right direction—which is signiﬁcantly higher than the percentage of Whites (16%) and Hispanics (21%) who say the same.” Part of the problem for Romney, though, may be that one reason young Latinos are disappointed in Obama, and the direction of the country, is that Obama failed to deliver comprehensive immigration reform—and the Republican Party demonizes undocumented immigrants. If so, the best Romney can hope for is that those voters stay home. If they do come out, they will surely see Obama as the lesser evil than Romney, who supports draconian anti–illegal immigration measures, such as Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law.
The last group that offers Romney some small possibility of cutting into Obama’s margins is the youngest of young voters. People who are under 21 were too young to vote in the last election, so they aren’t already committed to Obama. And having come of age in such a slow economy—rather than during George W. Bush’s economic crisis and unpopular Iraq War—may make them less grateful to Obama for withdrawing from Iraq and more open to Romney’s economic message. Obama leads among 18- to 24-year-olds by 12 points (41 percent to 29 percent) and among 25- to 29-year-olds by 23 points (46 percent to 23 percent).
Romney knows that the economy is his only angle among young voters. He isn’t going to win them over with his opposition to access for contraception. And a generation that was shaped by 9/11 is unlikely to buy the idea that President Obama, Osama bin Laden’s executioner, has been unsuccessful on foreign policy.
So Romey has rolled out his youth appeal with a purely economic focus. He has blasted out press releases and organized conference calls with headlines such as “The Effect Of President Obama’s Failed Economic Policies On Young Adults.” Surrogates, such as 30-year-old Representative Aaron Schock (R-IL) and College Republican President Alex Schriver, say Obama has failed young people in two major ways: he hasn’t put enough of them back to work and he has saddled their generation with increased federal debt.
The latter point, of course, is absurd. Very little of the current debt is attributable to Obama’s policies. Anyone who takes office during an economic contraction will see deficit-spending rise on their watch because tax revenues will decline and automatic spending on programs such as food stamps will increase.
But the former argument—that Obama has presided over unacceptably high unemployment among young people—could have some political resonance.
As part of his focus on economic hardship Romney has taken a rare position in agreement with Obama: both favor continuing a law to lower student loan interest rates. The rub, though, is how to pay for it, which House Republicans want to do by defunding a portion of the Affordable Care Act. This has understandably prompted a veto threat from the White House.
Democrats are trying to fend off Romney’s incursion into their youth vote turf. The Democratic National Committee dismissed Romney’s student loan stance as “shameless lip service.” The Republican Congressional budget, which Romney supports, would slash funding for Pell grants, thus making college even more unaffordable. Repealing the Affordable Care Act, as Romney pledges to do, would force millions of young people to lose their health insurance.
Romney seems to believe that he can substitute a general argument that youth unemployment is too high under Obama for specific policies that would help young people. For example, Romney is targeting a subset of young people, military veterans, with press releases such as one he released Friday titled “Veterans Are Struggling in the Obama Economy.” True enough, although the White House has launched a program to improve veterans’ employment, which Romney has praised. Obama also has a program in the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department to combat veterans’ homelessness. Romney recently suggested abolishing HUD, which presumably means eliminating that program. Romney, as Think Progress points out, has no policy agenda on veterans issues.
Meanwhile both Romney and Obama set off to visit college campuses last week. The differing receptions—enthusiasm for Obama and literally dozing off during Romney’s speech—were memorably captured by a TPM video mashing up the two.
Ultimately the Republicans’ nominal acceptance of lower student loan interest rates is just election-year politics. Their real view on college affordability is best expressed by Romney’s exhortations to young people to find cheaper colleges, conservative economist Josh Barro’s complaint that colleges should reduce costs on their own, and the declaration of House Higher Education subcommittee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) that,“I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that.” If Democrats make young people understand that, Romney will have a very hard time making inroads among young voters.