FREDERICKSBURG — Barack Obama was the first Democratic presidential hopeful to win Virginia since Lyndon Johnson‘s landslide victory in 1964, and young Republicans say they are determined to take the state back this year.
“It’s cool to be Republican,” said John Scott, chairman of the Virginia Federation of Young Republicans, which governs the 14 Young Republican clubs statewide.
“We are recruiting people who are open to the idea of economic prosperity and liberty. This resonates with a large faction of first-time homeowners and professionals who see how much is being taken out of their paychecks,” said Scott, a 24-year-old district representative for U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke.
But presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney has some heavy lifting to do in the next three months.
The former Massachusetts governor was upside-down in last week’s Quinnipiac Poll, as Virginia voters ages 18 to 34 gave him an unfavorable rating of 46 percent versus just 28 percent favorable.
Those kinds of numbers among younger voters sank 2008 GOP candidate John McCain, who lost Virginia and its 13 electoral votes by 234,000 votes.
“The Democrats kicked our tail on social media, Facebook and Twitter,” said Adam Washington, a local leader of the Virginia Federation of Young Republicans. “We must get better at this.”
Washington figures that Republicans have the wind at their back this time.
“Now Obama voters don’t have jobs. The stuff that was promised to them hasn’t worked out,” he said.
Young Republican organizations say they’re seeing more enthusiasm and urgency than in 2008.
Washington said his club, which spans Spotsylvania and Stafford counties, didn’t exist in 2008. “Now we have 40 members,” said the 33-year-old employee at the Quantico Marine base in Quantico.
Elsewhere, young Republicans say they’re beating Democrats to the punch.
“We opened a ‘Victory‘ office in Harrisonburg four months ahead of the Obama office,” Scott said.
“It’s night and day compared with 2008,” he told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau. “Folks who voted for Obama feel like they got scammed. ‘Hope and Change‘ brought chaos.”
Scott said VFYR started organizing immediately after the 2008 election, and membership continues to build from 415 volunteers in March to 650 today. The young Republican group now has 15 chapters around the state, including its newest one in Fauquier County.
Virginia’s college-educated crowd may be more receptive to the Romney message, according to the Quinnipiac Poll. Among college grads, Obama holds a much narrower 49 percent favorable rating to 46 percent unfavorable.
Romney is still in negative territory with this group — 42 percent favorable rating to 45 percent unfavorable — but that’s far better than the 28percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable split he has with younger voters at large.
Michael Cogar, who is studying mechanical engineering at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, acknowledges that Obama easily carried his school, as well as the college towns of Charlottesville and Blacksburg, in 2008.
“Now we’re reaching out as peers, and showing students the facts — like (unemployed or underemployed) college grads boomeranging back to parents. We ask them if that’s what they want,” said Cogar, president of the College Republican Federation of Virginia.
According to the conservative Young America’s Foundation, the “Youth Misery Index” has reached a record high of 90.6 percent, a 17 percent increase since Obama took office. The index, which factors a series of economic indicators, notes that the youth jobless rate is at its highest level in 60 years.
A poll commissioned by the nonpartisan group, Generation Opportunity, found that only 31 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds approve of Obama’s handling of youth unemployment.
Meantime, college Republican clubs are booming around Virginia. Cogar said ODU’s club has 80 members — up from five in 2009.
“There are close to 2,000 members in 24 chapters statewide,” Cogar related.
Democrats aren’t daunted, especially if Virginia’s 1.4 million young voters turn out at the nearly 60 percent rate they did in 2008.
“Normally, Democrats outperform Republicans among young voters,” said Jim Lewis, spokesman for Virginia Young Democrats.
“Romney isn’t speaking to young people, and Obama can point to new laws capping student loan payments and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until they’re 26,” Lewis said.
Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics in Charlottesville, scores the two parties’ chances at “50-50.”
“There are demographic reasons for the president to be more confident in Virginia than Florida or Ohio, the other two really big swing states. Florida has more older voters than Virginia, a cohort that was most favorable to McCain in 2008, and Ohio’s population is less diverse and more working class than Virginia’s,” Skelley said.
“In terms of younger voters, the president is almost certainly going to win the 18 to 29 age group nationally — no Democrat has lost the national 18 to 29 vote since Michael Dukakis in 1988 — but the Q-poll may signal that his support will be less overwhelming than it was in 2008, which is a good sign for Romney.
“Considering that Obama won 60 percent of the 18-29 vote in Virginia in 2008, I expect he’ll win it again here.”
Skelley also punctured the GOP balloon with this: “While Obama’s approval may be down, that doesn’t necessarily mean that young voters are going to choose to vote for Romney.”
“But,” he adds, “if Romney can cut the margins among younger voters and increase his edge among older voters, he’ll stand a decent shot of carrying the state in November.”
The stakes are high — and the generational clock is ticking — for Republicans.
Skelley cited research indicating that if a young voter votes for a particular party three consecutive elections, there’s roughly a 90 percent chance that voter will remain loyal to that party for life.