President Barack Obama, seeking to stoke enthusiasm among young voters who have been his strongest supporters, is offering reassurance to college-age audiences facing a tight job market amid a sluggish economic recovery.
“Your generation chooses the path we take as a country,” Obama said at a rally yesterday on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames. “We know we still have a lot of work to do to get to where we need to be, but we will get there.”
As Republican Mitt Romney prepares to accept his party’s presidential nomination this week in Tampa, Florida, Obama is spending two days before college-age crowds in the swing states of Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.
Emphasizing issues such as alternative energy, aid for education and same-sex marriage, Obama appealed to his audiences to help “finish what we started” in the 2008 election.
He wraps up the campaign foray today at an amphitheater in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia.
Younger voters helped propel Obama to the White House in 2008, when he received 66 percent of their support, according to exit polls. Now, with U.S. unemployment at 8.3 percent and the rate for those 20 to 24 years of age at 13.5 percent, his pitch to young voters may be a more difficult sell.
“The kids fell madly in love with him,” said Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. While Obama enjoyed rock-star popularity among the college set in 2008, she said, “Now, they’re a little disillusioned.”
Still, young voters remain Obama’s most loyal supporters, with 61 percent of those ages 18 to 29 favoring the Democratic president in a July Pew Research Center poll of 2,973 adults. Romney won support from 37 percent of that age bracket in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.
Working in Obama’s favor, Schiller said, is an agenda that includes keeping interest rates low on student loans and supporting the so-called DREAM Act, which would give legal residency to certain illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors and meet other criteria.
At Colorado State University in Fort Collins yesterday, Obama reminded a crowd estimated at 13,000 of those programs. He also mentioned his support for renewable energy, ending the Iraq war, repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevented gay troops from serving openly and other accomplishments he said wouldn’t have been possible without young voters.
“I just want all of you to understand your power,” he told the gathering, which packed a lawn in the mid-afternoon sun. “Don’t give it away.”
He also gave a fiery defense of his health-care law, which Romney has vowed to repeal. He said almost 7 million young people have insurance because of a provision in the law that lets them stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26.
“I’m not going to leave millions of Americans out in the cold,” Obama said. “That’s what we’re fighting for. That’s what’s at stake in this election.”
The Romney campaign is betting that a weak job market and rising college costs will make younger voters think twice about backing a president whose message of hope and change four years ago may now ring hollow.
“Under this president, too many young Americans are suffering from higher college costs, more debt and a lack of good jobs when they graduate,” Amanda Henneberg, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement. “President Obama’s policies are just more of the same from a president who hasn’t fixed the economy or kept his promises to the young people who supported him four years ago.”
The unemployment rate rose last month in 11 battleground states that are central to the election strategy for both campaigns.
The rate in Colorado ticked up to 8.3 percent in July from 8.2 percent in June. In Iowa the rate rose to 5.3 percent from 5.1 percent, and in Virginia it rose to 5.9 percent from 5.7 percent.
Obama carried each of the states he is visiting on the trip, and in each he is leading Romney by less than 2 percentage points, according to an average of surveys compiled by the Real Clear Politics website.
In Virginia, with 13 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, Obama leads Romney by 47.3 percent to 46.7 percent, according to an average of three surveys.
In Iowa, with six electoral votes, an average of four polls shows Obama leading Romney by 45.3 percent to 44.3 percent. In Colorado, where the candidates are fighting for nine electoral votes, Obama is leading by 47.6 percent to 46 percent, according to an average of five surveys.
Romney “is seen as somebody who will probably create a better environment for the students who graduate and can’t find a job,” Schiller said.
Obama took note of this week’s Republican convention, saying it “should be a pretty entertaining show.”
“But what you won’t hear from them is a path forward that meets the challenges of our time,” he said.
The challenge for Obama will be to get younger voters motivated enough to cast a ballot. Even as he energized many of them in 2008, only 58.5 percent of registered voters 18 to 24 voted, compared with 69.9 percent of those 35 to 44, and 76.6 percent of those 75 and older.
It was Obama’s 12th visit to Iowa and 10th to Colorado since becoming president. He has been to both states six times this year.