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How Will Young People Influence the Presidential Election?

You don't need to look any further than President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's meeting of the minds earlier this summer on keeping student loan rates stable to get a sense of how important young voters are to what's likely to be a very close race for president.

Both candidates have good reason to pay special attention to this demographic. Back in 2008, young voters overwhelmingly supported Obama and showed up at the polls in record numbers. And, maybe even more importantly, they were the life's blood of his campaign, supplying huge numbers of boots on the ground.

Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, doesn't necessarily need to capture that entire youth vote—and the campaign muscle that goes with it—but he needs to go after a portion of it, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, in an interview. MacManus moderated a panel on college access and other issues of interest to young voters at the Republican National Convention satellite event in Tampa, organized by the Young Invincibles, a non-partisan, non-profit group in Washington seeking to expand opportunity for young Americans.

"The GOP doesn't expect to get a majority of the youth vote," MacManus said. But they're hoping to snag some of the fuel for Obama's would-be get-out-the-vote machine. Young people "are the energy behind a campaign, they're what makes it happen at the grassroots," McManus said.

But, if you just judge soley the attendance at this event, Romney's got a long way to go. You'd never know you that you were on the outskirts of the Republican convention. There was just one self-identified Republican in attendance, and about four or five folks who identified themselves as political independents. A quick poll of the audience turned up a number of reporters—and Democrats.

The College Republicans were invited to the event but opted to skip it, said Aaron Smith, the co-founder of the Young Invincibles. He didn't seem offended, noting that there's a lot going on here in Tampa. The Young Invincibles have held well-attended round tables with College Republicans at campuses across the country, he said. And public polling shows that young Republicans are just as interested issues like college access as Democrats in the same age group.

But Obama still hasn't been able to inspire young people to the degree he did back in 2008.

"It hasn't been that utopia that everybody expected, I think a lot of youth feel like things aren't happening immediately enough so they aren't satisfied with it," said Shannon Love, a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the president of the Pinnellas County Young Democrats. (You read that right. She'll be a delegate at next week's convention in Charlotte.)

And despite all this outreach, some young voters still appear to be waiting for the candidates to spell out just what they would do to combat the soaring cost of a higher education, which is going up faster than that of health care.

"We haven't seen a truly comprehensive plan from either side on the cost of college," Smith said in an interview.

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