Still, Mr. Levine notes that the party can only improve from its showing with young people in 2008, when John McCain set a record for the lowest share of youth vote received by a Republican candidate. Fewer than a third of voters aged 29 and under voted for McCain, compared with 66 percent for President Obama. In three states – Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina – it was young people who put Obama over the edge and allowed him to win the state.
In a July poll of 18-to-29 year olds that CIRCLE conducted, young people supported Obama over Mitt Romney 55 percent to 42 percent – but if Romney actually succeeds in getting 42 percent of the young vote, notes Levine, it "would be a big improvement."
To do so, he needs to appeal both to socially conservative young people as well as those who are independent and willing to overlook social issues because they favor Romney on economic ones.
It's that last group that Republicans are banking on making on making inroads with.
"If you have 17 percent of a generation sitting on the sidelines, not employed fully, the predominant issue for this demographic is working in full-time jobs," says Paul Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, a conservative group focused on educating, organizing, and mobilizing young voters. He is referring to the 12.7 percent unemployment figure for young people, in addition to the 1.7 million more Mr. Conway says has stopped looking for work and is no longer counted.
"You have at least three years of high Millennial unemployment, the highest since World War II," he adds. "I've never seen an issue that characterizes or unites a generation more than this one does."
Conway acknowledges that in the recent past, conservatives haven't done as good a job at reaching out to young people, but he says they're starting to learn from the other side. Generation Opportunity, for instance, is making heavy use of social media as it pushes the message of economic opportunity and small government.