President Barack Obama's command of the likely youth vote has eroded since 2008, when sky-high record turnout of voters ages 18 to 29 helped propel him to the White House.
According to a new poll released by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, if the election were held today, Obama would win the youth vote by 52.1 percent to Republican challenger Mitt Romney's 35.1 percent among those registered voters who are "extremely likely to vote." That's a 17-percentage-point spread.
That margin for Obama is down from 2008, when he claimed 66 percent of the youth vote, compared to Sen. John McCain's 32 percent. That was a margin of 34 percentage points, or twice what this week's CIRCLE poll shows for the Obama versus Romney matchup.
Still, Obama's support among young voters is very strong. In fact, since July, when CIRCLE polled the same voters, Obama has widened his lead—by seven percentage points—from 44.4 percent to his current 52.1 percent. Romney's support has stayed level since the summer.
Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE, which is based at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., said that while the youth turnout in 2008 was overwhelmingly dominated by liberal young people, this poll shows a more split youth electorate on social and economic issues.
Young voters are "reassessing what they think about key ideological questions about what's the role of government," Levine said in a conference call with reporters today.
Nearly 9 percent of young voters still are undecided, according to the poll.
Youth voter turnout is expected to remain strong this election, as 54.6 percent say they are "extremely likely" to vote. In 2004, an estimated 53 percent of youth ages 18-29 voted. (The highest turnout of this age group was in 1972, at a rate of 55.4 percent, according to CIRCLE.)
In the end, youth organizations expect the youth turnout to be slightly lower than in 2008—but stress that young people are often the last group to be motivated to vote. And even though social networking and text messaging have become such crucial communication tools, they are not the best way to get young people to vote, said Alexandra Acker-Lyons, the director of the Youth Engagement Fund, which commissioned the poll.
"Talking to a young person face to face is still the number-one way to get a young person to vote," she said. "When young people are asked to vote, they will vote."
Young voters are overwhelming concerned about jobs and the economy, with nearly 40 percent declaring it their No. 1 issue. Health care was a distant second, 26 points behind. The federal deficit came in third, with the cost of college and the quality of education ranking fourth and fifth, respectively.
Interestingly, more in this age group think the country is headed in the wrong direction than the right direction (44 percent versus 31.2 percent, with the rest saying they didn't know). And young voters are split pretty evenly in describing their views of Obama as "admiring" or "satisfied" versus "disappointed" and "angry."
The poll, commissioned by the Youth Education Fund, was conducted of 1,109 youth between October 12 and 23. The same voters were polled in July. This week's poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.