WASHINGTON — President Obama, who hitched his ride to the White House three years ago largely on the infectious energy and organizing efforts of young Americans, faces challenges as he attempts to court their support in his reelection bid, political analysts say.
Voters under 30 have, as a group, become increasingly disillusioned dealing with the demoralizing economy. Their 13 percent unemployment rate is significantly higher than the national average, as many students graduate into a world of massive college loan debts and barren job markets.
“There’s a deep-seated feeling of malaise out there,’’ said Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who focuses on electoral participation. “The president is going to have to get really lucky to recapture the same kind of on-the-ground energy among young people that catapulted him to a win last time.’’
The numbers conveying that anxiety are stark. A survey released this month by the Pew Research Center found that just 48 percent of young voters - those 18 to 29 years old - say Obama makes them feel hopeful, compared with 81 percent in November 2008.
There are also signs that this group has begun to feel cynical about the impact of its vote: While 73 percent said that voting gave them a say in government shortly after Obama took office, only 63 percent now agree with that. Such a figure could be a harbinger of lagging turnout, always a question with this age group.
Most tellingly, even though most young voters still identify themselves as Democrats, they believe Republicans have as much a chance to solve the job problem as do Democrats.
There was little such ambivalence three years ago. The youthful dynamism surrounding Obama’s “Yes We Can’’ campaign then had not been seen since the 1972 presidential election, the first time 18 year olds could vote. Young Americans backed Obama in record numbers, voting 2-to-1 for him over Republican John McCain.
But it was more than a matter of votes.
“There was just a huge amount of energy,’’ said Matt Rodriguez, the New Hampshire state director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “We had more young people than we knew what to do with. He touched a nerve with them, and we got kids from all over the country who came to work for him.’’
At least 95 percent of the campaign’s employees were under 30, former campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in his book “The Audacity to Win,’’ and students made up a significant portion of the donor pool. Above all else, they provided the pulse of the Obama phenomenon, making phone calls, knocking on doors, registering new voters.
“Right now, it’s hard to see where that magic is going to come from,’’ Patterson said.
Some young Democratic leaders are worried that their peers will not even bother to vote.
“There are those my age that could easily turn a blind eye to voting and the political process as a whole,’’ said Brittany Tucker, president of the Northeastern University College Democrats.
The Obama campaign has aggressively sought to reengage young voters.
Its “Greater Together’’ initiative plans to mobilize them through social media, grassroots organization, and “Obama Student Summits,’’ in which campaign senior staff are dispatched to campuses across the country to discuss and debate the issues with students. The series began on Nov. 2 at the University of Pennsylvania with campaign manager Jim Messina and Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter.
The president is also courting college students and recent graduates with a plan designed to make it easier for them to repay their student loans.
The Pew study held some positive numbers for Obama. Young voters overwhelmingly support him in a head-to-head matchup with Mitt Romney, the Republican who polls best against the president. But their approval rating of Obama has plummeted, from 73 percent shortly after he took office to just 49 percent today, and their engagement in politics has diminished.
“These are ominous signs for Obama,’’ said Carroll Doherty, associate director of Pew, “but it’s not driving young people to the Republican camp.’’
Romney acknowledged this at a recent campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, telling an audience of students at Morningside College that Republicans are not getting their themes across. “We’ve been out-messaged by our Democrats friends,’’ he said.
The GOP is hoping to change that, confident that it can capitalize on the economic angst among young Americans and chip away at their Democratic support. Most recently, the party produced a colorful ad for the College Republican National Committee that features young people dismissing sound bites from Obama about “winning the future.’’
“You’re losing my future,’’ a young man says emphatically into the camera.
Perhaps the GOP’s best hope to win over the youth vote is its oldest presidential candidate: Representative Ron Paul of Texas. The 76-year-old attracted a strong following among college students and young professionals during his 2008 White House bid, and he remains intent on replicating that movement.
At the outset of his 2012 campaign, Paul said he believes the youth vote is up for grabs.
“I think there’s a lot of disenchantment there, to tell you the truth,’’ he said. “I think that Obama will not be able to hang on to that enthusiasm of the young people because of what’s been happening in the last couple years.’’
This is true for Aaron Ratoff, a 21-year-old senior at Tufts University. Ratoff recalls being a strong backer of Obama on campus during his freshman year in 2008. Today, his fervent admiration has developed into “measured disappointment,’’ he said.
“Obama had the right idea on a lot of things, but he hasn’t followed through on the execution and it’s been really discouraging,’’ Ratoff said. “I’ll probably reluctantly support him, but it’s still early.’’