Can Mitt Romney Win Millenials in 2012?

Posted: Jul 28, 2012 8:30 AM

The answer, of course, is probably not. After all, as MSNBC’s Melissa Dahl reported in 2008, “[y]oung voters preferred Obama over John McCain by 68 percent to 30 percent -- the highest share of the youth vote obtained by any candidate since exit polls began reporting results by age in 1976.”

It was, indeed, a truly historic election. And Mitt Romney’s chance of recapturing this core constituency is -- shall we say -- highly unlikely.

But since that time, public support for the president has fallen precipitously. For example, two recent polls show not only that Republicans are much more enthusiastic about voting in this year’s presidential election than Democrats, but President Obama’s favorability ratings -- typically "his strong suit" -- are clearly sinking.

But nowhere, it seems, is his diminishing popularity more evident than among America’s millennial generation.

Let me explain.

Last Wednesday, I attended a seminar entitled “The Young and the Restless: Millenials in the 2012 Election,” at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. During this three-person AEI panel discussion, experts weighed in on the 2012 presidential campaign -- focusing especially on how millennials, those 18 to 29 year old voters, will impact the November election.

One of the first things that captured my attention were the statistics about then-candidate Obama’s seemingly unprecedented popularity. Incredibly, according to Scott Keeter -- a pollster at the Pew Research Center -- Mr. Obama was so popular in 2008 that if one were to hypothetically remove all young voters from the 2008 presidential election exit polls, he still would have defeated John McCain by a measurable margin. Wow. On the other hand, Ketter continued, that will undoubtedly “not be the case this time around.”

So, what has changed?

The truth is that much has changed since 2008. Indeed, for forty-one straight months the national unemployment rate has been above eight percent, forty-five million Americans are on food stamps, thirty-eight percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and, perhaps most telling of all, nearly forty percent of young adults will at some point move back in with their parents.

This doesn’t exactly inspire optimism. Which is why, I think, there are at least three reasons Mitt Romney has an opportunity to narrow the millennial voting gap in 2012.

First, young people are deeply disenchanted with the president’s policies.

“Millenials are [still] supporting Obama at very high rates,” Ketter intoned during the discussion, “[but] where we’re seeing the drop off is in enthusiasm.” And, not surprisingly, he’s right. In fact, according to a recent Gallup survey, voter enthusiasm among Democrats has plummeted -- 21 percentage points -- since 2008, while at the same time Republican voter enthusiasm has risen 16 percentage points.

And since that time, according to the Center for American Progress’ Ruy Teixera, “the economy is [still the] overriding issue [in 2012],” Mitt Romney is uniquely positioned to court voters (i.e. millenials) who might otherwise oppose his candidacy in a less economics-driven election cycle. (Incidentally, this is precisely why the president has gone to great lengths to make this campaign about anything other than a referendum on his own handling of the nation’s finances). Thus, Romney can -- and should -- take advantage of growing voter disillusionment and, in turn, make a concerted effort to reach out to young people.

Second, millennials -- somewhat surprisingly -- care deeply about family values.

But why, one might ask, does this even matter? It matters, as Keeter explained to those of us in attendance, because according to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center, poll after poll suggests “the family is absolutely essential and [growing] stronger amongst millenials.” The prolonged recession, coupled with increased poverty and a lack of economic opportunity has brought families increasingly closer together.

As mentioned above, more and more Americans today live with their parents than at any other time since the 1950s -- many of whom will continue to live at home through their 20s. This is one why reason Mitt Romney should start opening up more about his personal life -- perhaps even discussing the innumerable challenges he and his family have overcome through the years. Critics often suggest Mitt Romney is a one-dimensional “robot,” a candidate who cannot connect with voters on any sort of personal level. Thus, invoking his family life on the campaign trail might actually do some good -- and pique the interest of millennial voters in the process.

Third -- and perhaps most important of all -- millennial voters by and large have not yet tuned into the 2012 campaign.

“People aren’t familiar with [Mitt] Romney,” Keeter said matter-of-factly. “We know that young people are less politically engaged than older people. So to the extent that the electorate in general doesn’t know who Mitt Romney is -- that probably is especially true for young people.”

Sometimes, I think, it’s easy to forget (especially for those of us living inside the Beltway) that most Americans don’t pay close attention to politics year round, let alone four months before a presidential election. This gives Team Romney ample opportunity to craft a narrative emphasizing his leadership qualities and “stellar” business record as a job creator.

Sure, President Obama has launched a series of factually inaccurate attack ads, explicitly portraying Romney as an avaricious, “vulture capitalist” who values material prosperity over individuals. But no damage has been done… yet. Over the course of the next four months, Romney and his surrogates (as every panelist suggested) should make an explicit pitch to the millennial generation, explaining why the former governor’s economic vision for America will create opportunity, prosperity, and above all else, social mobility to those who need it most.

As the fall campaign rapidly approaches, most pundits readily concede Mitt Romney will not capture the lion’s share of the youth vote. This is to be expected. But, as Lifecourse Associates’ Neil Howe argued, “millenials could be exceptionally important [this year].” And unlike the 2008 campaign, he explained, this is a constituency President Obama might need in order to secure his re-election. Romney would be smart to court these voters sooner rather than later, thereby taking away a crucial voting bloc his Democratic rival so desperately needs.

This could well represent the difference between winning and losing in November.