Denver, Colorado – Jake Alexander, an aviation student at Metropolitan State College of Denver, should be exactly the kind of young voter open to persuasion by Mitt Romney.
He grew up in Georgia, one of the most politically conservative states in the union, and says he is a registered Republican (like his family).
He supported Barack Obama in 2008 – “he was so impressive then,” Alexander recalls – but today he’s worried about the economy, and admits he wasn’t happy with the president’s $787bn economic stimulus package. Romney, of course, has made Obama’s economic record the centerpiece of his campaign.
But would Alexander vote for him next month? Not a chance. “I feel like he’s a liar,” he said of the Republican nominee.
Amber McCoy, too, should be the persuadable sort. She wanted to become an actress, but gave that up because it seemed an uncertain career in a troubled economy. Now she’s studying criminal justice instead – the first member of her family to attend college. “I’m nervous. I hope I can get a job,” she told me.
McCoy was an active Obama supporter in 2008, but four years later she admits to frustration with the president. “It seems like he’s a pawn in what other people want him to do, and a lot of that is with the upper class wanting what they want, lower taxes,” she said.
She’s also planning to vote for him in November. “I feel like he’s the lesser of two evils right now,” she said.
For all the talk about how Obama might lose support among this demographic – how the “Obama magic” is gone – it was a struggle to find a single Mitt Romney supporter during a full day of interviews in this city, often ranked as one of the youngest in America. (I eventually did find one; he shouted obscenities about the “socialist, Muslim” president, and refused to be interviewed.)
But there also wasn’t much enthusiasm for the incumbent. “We might as well stick with Obama and let him finish it out,” said Kim Olund, a public health student – hardly the “yes we can” rallying cry of 2008.
The president, in other words, is still going to win a solid majority among younger voters. There just won’t be as many of them.
‘They’re not all about Obama’
This demographic – voters aged 18 to 29 – was a key part of Obama’s winning coalition in 2008. He won two-thirds of the youth vote, and he turned out 51 per cent of this age group, the highest youth voter turnout since 1972.
The Obama campaign is trying to turn out young voters here in Colorado. It has opened 55 campaign offices here - compared to 14 for Romney. Volunteers, some of them not even old enough to vote themselves, are calling prospective voters and campaigning door-to-door.
"I make a lot of phone calls, knock on a lot of doors. This summer I helped out in whatever way I could," said Kate Henjum, a 17-year-old volunteer at an Obama office in Colorado Springs. "I still think there's a lot of enthusiasm from youth about president Obama."
Many independent groups, too, are targeting young voters in their voter registration efforts. McCoy and Alexander were among several dozen voters who registered to vote last month at a drive run by New Era Colorado, an organisation that aims to register 20,000 voters statewide this year (and is about three-quarters of the way there).
“I would say they’re a little bit less so than 2008, but they’re still excited, especially since the presidential debate’s here,” said Lauren Latimer, a staff member with New Era. “I think people are definitely a little bogged down by all of the press media that’s going on, the commercials.”
Enthusiasm is hard to gauge, especially among younger voters: 72 per cent said they “definitely planned to vote” last year, according to the Pew Research Centre, but on election day 84 per cent of registered young voters cast their ballots.
But polls so far suggest that youth voter registration – often a good barometer of enthusiasm – is down markedly compared to last year.
A Pew Research Centre poll found that 63 per cent “definitely plan to vote” this year, compared with 72 per cent at the same time in 2008; and only 50 per cent know if they are registered to vote, an 11-point drop from the last election and the lowest level in nearly two decades.
“A lot of my friends, my peers, they’re kind of over it right now,” said Joy Adroa, a biochemistry student here. “They don’t want Romney but they’re not all about Obama either.”
‘Not very many opportunities’
Obama has ticked the right boxes, so to speak, to assure renewed support from younger voters. He issued an executive order capping federal student loan payments.
His health care bill requires most insurers to provide free contraception, and he has been an advocate for abortion rights. “I don’t want my reproductive rights taken away from me. I don’t think that’s fair,” McCoy said.
Many students mentioned Planned Parenthood, an organisation that provides free and low-cost breast cancer screenings, gynecological exams and contraception, as a reason to support Obama. He has attacked Mitt Romney repeatedly for the Republican nominee’s plan to cut federal funding from the organisation.
“I find it very important to have birth control included in my health care, because I don’t think that’s something that should be out of reach for all women,” said Eve Jennings, a music student.
But those issues only go so far, because students here said they were still concerned about the economy, and their own prospects for finding a job after graduation. Unemployment among young Americans has skyrocketed over the past few years; today one in six are jobless, double the rate of the general population.
“It’s scary,” said Lauren Apple, a community college student who said she was still undecided about her vote. “There’s not very many opportunities right now. I think it’s scary being a college student and not having as much hope that I’ll be taken care of when I get out of college.”