In 2008, voters ages 18 to 29 made up 17.1 percent of the votes cast, according to an analysis from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, and they overwhelmingly supported Obama over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 66 percent to 31 percent. CIRCLE analyst Surbhi Godsay said that, despite declining enthusiasm for politics among young voters, there's no reason to assume turnout will drop this year.
"There's a whole new rise of young voters who weren't eligible to vote," Godsay said.
Up for grabs are the 4.3 million young Americans who will turn 18 before the elections, according to a CIRCLE analysis of U.S. sensus data, not including the number of 17-year-olds that will be eligible to vote in some states with lower voting ages.
With the most recent nationwide poll giving Obama just a 6-point lead over Mitt Romney with voters nationwide, neither candidate can afford to ignore an already substantial, and growing, demographic. The Obama campaign is tackling two subsets of that demographic right now "“ those planning to get, or who already have, a college education, and those who have no higher-education plans. It's a wise move on his part, because as a CIRCLE analysis shows, students without a college degree turned out slightly more in support of Obama (66 percent) than those with a college degree (65 percent.)
"Young people without college experience turned out at the highest rate [in 2008] since '86," Godsay explained, adding that those voters were primarily low-income "“ the exact group Obama's Summer Jobs+ initiative aims to help.
To appeal to the other subset, those planning to or attending college, Obama is engaging in an incessant offensive on student loan rates. He gave three speeches at three different universities recently calling on Congress to extend the freeze on student-loan rates, but what he didn't say was that many of the students he was talking to would barely be affected by a rise in rates. Only subsidized Stafford Loans, and only those taken out after July 1, 2012, will see a rise in rates "“ a concern for students taking out new loans for continuing education, not those who already have them.
That may be why he turned to the young crowd on Friday, speaking at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., about student loans to a group of juniors and seniors and their parents.
The push to keep rates low is bipartisan, and has been supported by Romney as well. But Obama may have a jump on the messaging, and he doesn't plan to let the issue die: The White House announced that next week, Vice President Joe Biden and a number of administration officials will hold events throughout the nation to echo Obama's offensive on student loans.
And that could ultimately make all the difference. Matthew Segal, cofounder of youth-mobilization organization Our Time, said that Obama's discussion of youth issues makes sense now due to the timing of issues particular to young voters.