After a victory in the GOP primary in South Carolina, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has emerged as a top challenger to Romney. But some experts, and even some of his young supporters, doubt their candidate can catch on among younger voters.
Shelby Emmett, 26, of Charles Village, is reluctantly backing Gingrich, since Herman Cain dropped out of the race. She says she likes Gingrich's frank talk about the economy and Social Security. But she's not so sure her candidate can pull young voters away from Obama.
"He's wasn't my first choice," she said. "But he's not holding back and he's not politically correct. … No, I don't think a lot of young people will go for him. A lot of young people are naïve."
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign didn't return calls.
Youth enthusiasm at a low
The youth vote isn't down only among Democrats.
There are now about 400 fewer registered young Republicans since mid-2010 in Maryland, and the youth vote during the early GOP primaries was low. Turnout in New Hampshire was only 15 percent of young voters. In the Iowa caucus, the youth turnout was only 4 percent. In South Carolina's primary, 8 percent of young voters turned out to the polls.
Among young voters, in each of those states, Texas Rep. Ron Paul was victorious.
Investment analyst Mayur Thaker, 26, of Gaithersburg, was a self-described "big supporter" of Obama last election, but says the president's support of bailouts for rich bankers and campaign contributors turned him off. He traveled to Iowa to help get out the vote for his new candidate.
"I thought he was a true progressive in terms of civil liberties and peace," says Thaker, who now backs Paul. "I basically became disillusioned."
Rob "Biko" Baker is the executive director of the League of Young Voters, a nonpartisan organization that helps mobilize young voters in cities with large minority populations in battleground states. He says he admires a lot of what the Paul campaign is doing.
"A lot of people are cynical about the political process. We're not," he says. "We believe a lot of important stuff goes on that young people can influence. People call young people apathetic, but if you look at both sides of the aisle, you see young people involved. You see young white people getting involved in Ron Paul's campaign. On the Democratic, progressive side, Occupy is a young person's movement. There's a new breed of activist out here that's young and more sophisticated."
Baker's group helped get many Obama voters to the polls in 2008, he says, and believes it's a mistake for politicians to write off young voters.
"Ron Paul is kicking [hindquarters] in these early states because young people are motivated to work for him," Baker says. "People don't understand the strategic-ness of young people. Just by turning out we can change the election."
He says if the economy doesn't improve, and the jobless rate doesn't go down, Obama could be in trouble.
"I'm really seeing the frustration in the people that just last year would have turned out," he says. "It's a scary prospect that people aren't going to have a job in future years. It's hard out here."
Levine points to the Obama campaign's youth strategy in 2008: Directly appeal to young voters, give them unscripted positions of responsibility in the campaign, and promote a message of inclusiveness and tolerance on social issues.
"Just asking young people to vote. That works," Levine says. "If you're doing canvassing, target young people. There's a good return on investment. Obama understood that in '08."