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Why Obama's Re-election Campaign Will Depend On the Youth Vote

Americans are polarized like never before as we head into the 2012 presidential campaign, and the greatest dividing line of all seems to be age. Indeed, President Obama has astoundingly consistent support from Americans less than 30 years old, the so-called Millennial generation. In a recent Pew survey, this cohort favored Obama over Romney by 24 points, 61-37. The generation least likely to support Obama, on the other hand, is the "Silent generation"—the generational group slighter older than Baby Boomers, and the group now dominant among the ranks of seniors. He trails Mitt Romney in this generation by 13 points, 41-54. This is the same generation that moved so sharply against Democrats in the 2010 election, contributing heavily to the GOP wave that swept the country.

Those polling numbers clearly dictate an electoral strategy: What Obama needs to do is perform a kind of generational pincer movement on the GOP, driving up support and turnout among the Millennial generation while breaking into GOP support among the Silent generation. There’s also a straightforward way for him to accomplish both goals.

Fortunately, the White House already seems to be thinking along these lines. On the Millennial side, Obama’s recent Osawatomie speech may be read as an opening bid to establish a campaign narrative with special appeal to this generation. Millennials are exceptionally sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its goals. Obama’s attack on inequality and the way that an unfair economy thwarts economic mobility strikes a very responsive chord among these voters. 

In addition, Obama’s argument that government must play a strong role in reestablishing healthy economic growth also plays well among this group. In the same Pew poll, Millennials are most likely to select jobs as their top election issue. And, in distinction to older generations, they still believe government spending helps the economy recover—indeed, they believe spending should be a higher priority for the federal government than deficit reduction. Also in distinction to older generations, Millennials say they prefer a bigger government with more services to a smaller government with less services. Finally, a whopping two-thirds of this generation believes the Affordable Care Act should either be expanded or left as is, rather than repealed.

The Silent generation, of course, is a different story: While Millennials are predisposed to support activist government, the Silents are not. But they do feel strongly about certain aspects of activist government like Social Security and Medicare. That should be the other side of Obama’s pincer movement. He needs to draw a very strong contrast between his approach and that of the GOP, which proposes to replace the current Medicare system with underfunded vouchers. Silents, more than any other generation, believe it is more important to keep Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are (64 percent) than reduce the budget deficit (27 percent). 

This pincer movement will be key to Obama’s chances, both nationally and in a wide variety of target states. Nationally, he could break-even or a bit worse among middling age groups (30-64) but still win if he carries 18 to 29-year-olds by significantly more than he loses seniors, as he did in 2008, since the two groups tend to be of roughly similar size in presidential elections. But if he carries 18 to 29-year-olds by significantly less than he loses seniors, as congressional Democrats did in 2010, he will lose. Hence the need for both parts of the pincer movement.

On the state level, in contrast to 2008 where the youth vote put Obama over the top in only two states, North Carolina and Indiana, there could be many instances where the youth vote makes the difference in 2012. Consider Ohio. Obama carried 18 to 29-year-olds with 61 percent against John McCain’s 26 percent in 2008, while losing seniors 44-55. Both groups were 17 percent of Ohio voters. Thus, if Obama splits 30 to 64-year-old voters roughly evenly in 2012—significantly worse than he did in 2008—he will likely still win the state if youth voters continue to be more pro-Obama than seniors are anti-Obama.

Virginia and Nevada follow the same pattern. Obama carried 18 to 29-year-olds by 60-39 while losing seniors 46-53 in Virginia. Keep that relative relationship, fight the GOP candidate to a draw among middling age groups, and the state is his. Likewise, in Nevada, Obama carried 18 to 29-year-olds by a lop-sided 67-31 while losing seniors 42-55. In this state, fading to the break-even point among 30-64 year olds would represent a big loss relative to 2008, but Obama could survive it provided, again, he wins 18 to 29-year-olds by significantly more than he loses seniors.

All over the country, in other words, from the Midwest to the New South to the new swing states of the Southwest, Obama’s generational pincer movement could be key to his electoral prospects. Motivate and inspire youth while giving seniors second and third thoughts about the GOP. It’s a good game plan and Obama’s already made an excellent start at implementing it.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.