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Youth vote not as fired up as in 2008. Could that trip up Obama?

Voters under 30 gave President Obama his margin of victory in at least three states in 2008. In a close race, he'll need the youth vote on Nov. 6 more than ever. But it's not clear he'll get it in the numbers he needs.

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Obama, when he spoke, emphasized his main themes of jobs and help for the middle class, but also touched on issues important to many college students, such as student financial aid and the Obamacare provision that would allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they’re 26 years old.

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At one point, he reminded the crowd of Romney’s remarks that students who can’t afford college should borrow money from their parents.

When the crowd booed his mentions of Romney, Obama interjected, “Don’t boo, vote!”

At another point, he told his audience that “protectors of the status quo” are “counting on you not voting.”

But Obama has some good reason to fear just that. A series of polls this fall have led to concerns that youths, this time around, are less engaged.

A Pew poll at the end of September found that just half of young people were even sure they were registered (compared with 61 percent at the same time in 2008), and just 63 percent said they definitely planned to vote, down from 72 percent four years ago.

While those numbers are not particularly shocking, given the significant degree to which young people have felt the burden of the sluggish economy and joblessness, they garnered a lot of attention.

But Mr. Keeter of Pew says they also tell only part of the story.

In subsequent polls, the portion of young people who say they definitely plan to vote has climbed to 75 percent, and the number who say they’re registered is up to 59 percent – still behind where it was at the same point in 2008, but by a narrower margin.

“Youth engagement is probably going to be down a little bit from where it was four years ago, but I don’t think that it’s a certainty at this point, and mobilization makes a huge amount of difference with this population,” says Keeter.

Those mobilization efforts were on display a week before the election on the CU campus in Boulder, a heavily Democratic area in a critical swing state. It was hard for students to walk more than 100 yards without being asked if they had voted yet (an early voting station was conveniently located on campus), and both graffiti and Obama volunteers all urged students to do their duty. Someone had written “VOTE” on a well traveled sidewalk using Obama-Biden stickers, and an enthusiastic Obama volunteer in a dog costume handed out bumper stickers.

“People have been really adamant about voting, and they show how important it is,” says Eric Gold, a CU student who saw Obama speak on campus earlier this fall and plans to vote for him.

While Obama is by far the most visible presence on the Boulder campus, he’s not capturing all students.

Alyssa Noe, a CU freshman who will be voting for the first time this fall, says she plans to vote for Romney – mostly because of his platform on abortion.

“I feel like the last election was based on race, wanting to make history,” says Ms. Noe, but this time around she believes that young people are looking more at the issues. Still, she notes, “I don’t know a lot of Romney supporters.”

Young people remain one of Obama’s best demographics, second in their support only to African-Americans. But while exit polls in 2008 showed that they preferred Obama over McCain by a staggering 68 percent to 32 percent, this year the difference isn’t so extreme.

In the most recent poll by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, which studies young voter trends, Obama had 52 percent of young people’s support, compared with 35 percent for Romney.

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