By Ryan Ekvall and Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
WAUKESHA – Conversations overheard while waiting for the start of the Fighting for Wisconsin’s Future Youth Event: unemployment, going away to college, the national debt, braces coming off, Obamacare, getting out the vote, and Facebook.
Campaign workers with Republican party presidential candidate Mitt Romney say the dozen or so young people gathered Wednesday at the Waukesha County GOP Victory Center are part of a growing conservative youth movement — and an important voting bloc if the Mitt Romney for President campaign hopes to win the 2012 election.
About 18 million of the 24 million votes from voters 18 to 29 went to President Obama in 2008, which accounted for some 25 percent of his total, according to the Roper Center, an archive of political data at the University of Connecticut.
This year, an estimated 8 million more 18- to 21-year-olds will be eligible to vote for the first time, said Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, in an interview with CNN.
Several of the young Republicans in Waukesha said they got their start in politics volunteering for Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign. That work may have paid off for Walker, who lost the typically liberal 18-29 by a slender 51-49 percent margin.
Now they have committed themselves – in some cases to 40 hours of volunteer work a week – to dialing the phones and hitting the pavement for Romney’s presidential campaign. In the fall, they intend to take their newly acquired campaign skills to their respective college campuses – some in Wisconsin, some Illinois, one even from Boston College.
“The current economic times, the current outlook is not looking good,” said Ricardo Tapia, a Milwaukee resident who will be a senior at Boston College in the fall. Tapia sounded more like an out-of-work 30-something than a college kid.
“With the total debt being what it is, the deficit being what it is, the unemployment rate, the current scope is not looking good. Apart from that, my future is not looking good,” he said.
Tapia, 20, criticized Obama for his “tax-and-spend” policies, entitlements and failed “hope and change” rhetoric. He said unemployment was his biggest issue as a voter. “I’ve worked my rear end off in college and high school, and I don’t think that may be enough these days.”
The 16.5 percent unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds reported in the June Bureau of Labor Statistics report is actually lower than the 17.3 percent rate reported in June of last year. In January 2009, however, that rate was only 14.9 percent.
Micah Voce, an 18-year-old who will attend Illinois State University as a freshman in the fall, echoed Tapia, saying unemployment and college loans were the most important issues to him. Well versed in Republican politics, Voce said he would like to work for a small business when he leaves college.
Today’s talk focused on using social media to engage friends and family in communicating Romney’s message of reduced taxes and regulation.
Romney’s Wisconsin campaign team hosted Katie Harbath, Facebook’s manager of public policy for Republicans; Facebook has Democrat strategists, too. Harbath said she helps campaigns attract more “likes” and, hopefully, votes.
Obama has 27,373,952 “likes” on Facebook, dwarfing Romney’s 2,479,738.
“(Facebook) is becoming widely important, mainly because this is one of the places that people check every single day and where they get a lot of their news,” Harbath said. “More and more campaigns are hoping to use that word of mouth and the power of word of mouth by people sharing content with their friends that the campaign is putting out, because it adds a level of trust that people wouldn’t normally get with just a direct-mail piece,” she said.
Despite the president’s vast lead on Facebook, social media sites are no longer Democratic Party strongholds. Even young people have lost their monopoly on social media: Harbath said the 55-plus demographic was their fastest-growing group of users.
“President Obama put a lot of effort into (social media) obviously in 2008,” said Harbath. “But then you look at 2010, and that’s where you started to see a lot of activity on the Republican side — with candidates such as Marco Rubio, or Pat Toomey, Gov. Walker — any of those folks who were running for office. When they first started, people didn’t necessarily give them a chance at winning, but they really used social media early on to build up a foundational base of fans and people who wanted to vote for them.”
She pointed out Facebook has more users, 161 million in the United States, than voters in the 2008 presidential election, 122 million.
In Waukesha, a largely Republican district, young Republicans might have an easier time persuading their peers to get out and vote GOP. The state as a whole, however, still seems to have more young Democrats than Republicans.
A Marquette Law School poll conducted July 5-8 shows limited enthusiasm for Obama among young Wisconsin voters, but even less for Romney. According to the poll, 53.7 percent of respondents 18 to 29 approve of Obama, compared to 31.1 percent who like Romney.
When asked who they would vote for in November, young voters were twice as likely to say they’d vote for Obama (61.6 percent) than Romney (31.1 percent).
Among the entire population, 51.2 percent said they’d choose Obama, while 40.9 percent would vote for Romney. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percent.
“For Obama, pretty much any candidate would be happy to win a group by 2:1, but if you’re going to win 2:1 in a group that has the lowest turnout level, you want to do as much as you can to get them to turn out,” said Charles Franklin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist overseeing the Marquette poll.
“I think from what we’ve seen of the campaigns so far, the jobs emphasis is probably still (Romney’s) strongest suit,” Franklin said. “If he can successfully tie the slow recovery to the kinds of (limited) job prospects those who are 18 to 29 face … then that’s a very pragmatic argument.”
“It would be difficult to win the group, but mitigating the loss would be in itself valuable,” he said.
Franklin said that, by contrast, Obama has “values appeal,” and young voters prefer the president’s social policies. An informal poll on the College Democrats of Wisconsin’s Facebook site seems to bear that out.
Asked “which one of President Obama’s accomplishments is most significant to you?” 23 respondents chose “extending health care” for young people compared to 14 who chose preventing an economic collapse and creating jobs.
The College Democrats held a “tweetup” Sunday on Twitter to discuss organizing efforts for the upcoming fall semester. Among the tweets:
“The first step to winning this November is having conversations with the people you know and interact with in everyday life.”
“Interested in talking about how @BarackObama has ensured equality for all by ending #DADT and supporting marriage equality.”
Congressman Ron Kind, D-3rd District, also tweeted to the group: “#witweetup Your work on college campuses will be pivotal in western WI & important to the entire state. Thanks for being here.”
It was the same message the Republican Party was selling in Waukesha.