Young Americans are feeling better about President Obama than they were just four months ago, a new poll from Harvard's Institute of Politics has found. The survey contains both good and bad news for the Obama campaign: While Obama's supporters are currently more passionate than supporters of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, young people overall are feeling disillusioned with the political system and unenthusiastic about voting in 2012.
"The Obama voters at this point seem more committed and more passionate about helping him out," said John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Institute of Politics. But, he added, "we're seeing less interest in voting, less interest in electoral politics generally" among young people compared to four years ago and even four months ago.
In a head-to-head matchup, Obama leads Romney 43 percent to 26 percent among young voters, the poll found. That's a 6-point gain for Obama compared with a poll released by the IOP in December 2011; support for Romney has remained the same, despite his new status as presumptive Republican nominee. Thirty percent of young voters say they're still undecided.
President Obama's schedule this week includes talks about college affordability at three major state universities. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns are using the opportunity to debate the issues that impact college-age voters.
In a Romney campaign conference call on Tuesday, former Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., said that "four years ago, the president was able to fool a number of our college students into supporting his campaign and the result has been the highest level of unemployment for youth in our country's recorded history." That was a day after the Obama for America campaign held a press call to highlight the need to keep student loans affordable, and to criticize Romney's economic plan, which would cut education funding.
To date, young Obama supporters are much more passionate about their candidate than young Romney supporters, the poll found. Seventeen percent of respondents said they'd be very likely to volunteer for the Obama campaign if asked, and 35 percent said they'd be somewhat likely to pitch in. Only 5 percent of respondents said they'd be very likely to volunteer for Romney, and 27 percent said they'd be somewhat likely.
Obama's job-approval rating among young Americans has edged up in the past four months, to 52 percent, and 41 percent of them now approve of the way the president is handling the economy-- the issue they rate as the most important. The poll found that Hispanic approval of the president helps buoy his overall support: Obama's job approval rating among Hispanics has surged 14 percentage points in four months, the pollsters found. Fifty percent of Hispanics would back Obama and 12 percent would back Romney in a matchup.
"The president continues to struggle with key elements of the millennial demographic," said Trey Grayson, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics. Among white millennials, a group Obama won by 10 points in 2008, Obama and Romney are essentially tied, 37 to 34 percent.
Della Volpe said that among the youngest of the millennials — 18- to 21-year-olds — polling suggests "a slight increase of conservative principles." They also don't seem to feel as connected to the Obama campaign as those who voted for him in 2008.
"It's clear this generation isn't as supportive of Obama and the Democrats as in 2008," Della Volpe said. But that "doesn't necessarily mean they're more supportive of Republicans."
Many young people are headed into this election feeling disillusioned with the current political system — and with both political parties. Only 49 percent of respondents said they'll definitely be voting this fall, a decrease since December.
Less than half of millennials — 43 percent — say that Obama will win re-election. In December 2011, 30 percent said he would win, and 36 percent said he would lose.
The survey was conducted between March 23 and April 9 with the support of Knowledge Networks. It includes Web interviews with 3,096 U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.
Web-based polls are considered more useful when surveying younger Americans, who are less likely to have landline telephones and are also less likely to complete phone surveys, even on their cell phones. Respondents to this poll were chosen at random by telephone or mail and invited to participate in the Web-enabled survey. To mitigate any response bias by income or geography, poll respondents lacking Web access were provided with a laptop and Internet connection at no cost.