A wave of excited young voters helped lift President Barack Obama to a narrow victory in the state four years ago, but flagging support is now putting a repeat win in jeopardy.
If Obama does end up losing North Carolina this election, it could be because of voters like Jennifer Bachelor.
An Elon University graduate, Bachelor cast her first vote for president for Obama, but she has agreed with his positions less and less as his term wore on. Her assessment of the presidents performance is so negative that the Raleigh resident watched the vice-presidential debate last week with other staunch backers of the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan ticket at a GOP-sponsored party.
Bachelor, 24, has a job as a software tester but her friends have struggled to find work. Obama campaigned on bringing people together and on cutting the deficit in half, and he failed at both, she said.
It came to me, Bachelor said, its my money hes borrowing.
On his way to a hair-thin, 14,000-vote victory in the state four years ago, Obama won the votes of 74 percent of voters 29 and younger, according to CNN exit polls. Analysts with the Pew Research Center determined Obama would have lost the state without the surge in turnout and lopsided support of young voters.
Underscoring their importance, First Lady Michelle Obama has visited three North Carolina college campuses in the last month. On Tuesday, she was at UNC-Chapel Hill for an afternoon rally where students were encouraged to cast their ballots during the early voting period that begins Thursday and ends Nov. 3.
Sam Kirby, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said hell vote for Obama again but with less enthusiasm this year. Students are as interested in the election as they were four years ago, said the chemistry major from High Point, but theyre not as high on the president.
The people I talk to, they dont see a lot of change in the last four years, said Kirby during a recent lunch break. People expect quick changes, and thats not possible.
College Democrats are working on campuses statewide, but the Obama posters and stickers that plastered UNC-Chapel Hill four years ago are absent this time. The Romney campaign and conservative groups are paying more attention to young voters, working to get them to go for the GOP ticket.
Young voters favor Obama over Romney, said Katy Harriger, chairman of the Politics and International Affairs Department at Wake Forest University. The big question is whether theyll turnout at the same level. In races with an incumbent, voter turnout tends to be lower, she said.
Total voter turnout reached nearly 70 percent in 2008, with about 58.7 percent of the states registered voters age 18 to 29 casting ballots. Young voters increased their share of the total electorate by 4 points compared to 2004, according to Pew researchers.
Not the hot new thing on the block
A SurveyUSA poll for WRAL conducted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 gave Obama a lead of 23 percentage points over Romney, 58 percent to 35 percent with voters ages 18 to 34. But Romney doesnt have to win the youth vote in North Carolina to win the state. Romney just has to do better with young voters than McCain did, said Celia Bigelow, campus director for the Virginia-based conservative group American Majority Action.
Romney has significantly closed that gap, she said.
However, the stakes for Romney are much higher in North Carolina, which political experts believe he must win.
Obama can win the nomination without North Carolina, GOP consultant Carter Wrenn said last month. There is really not a path that Romney can win without North Carolina.
Austin Gilmore, president of the Young Democrats at UNC-Chapel Hill, said its natural that support for the president wouldnt be as visible this year because the election doesnt carry the same historic significance.
Its unreasonable to expect things to be exactly like 2008, said Gilmore, taking a break from volunteer recruitment one recent afternoon. Hes not the hot new thing on the block.
Campus Democrats have been busy registering voters, he said, and theyre ready to put their energy to getting voters to the polls.
Im feeling confident about our ground game, Gilmore said. We have people on the ground, talking to voters.
No campus Republican group was out pitching their candidates or looking for volunteers at the Pit one afternoon last week, but the GOP has been gathering support from young voters for months. The campaign has a Young Americans for Romney coalition and a youth vote coordinator working in the state. Tagg Romney campaigned in the state Wednesday, attending a Young Americans for Romney rally in Winston-Salem in the morning.
The unaffiliated rise
Generation Opportunity has been contacting young voters in North Carolina and other states, urging them to actively oppose Obamas economic policies. Generation Opportunity, which connects young voters through social media, doesnt tell people who to vote for, said president Paul T. Conway, but the group highlights the youth unemployment rate and the impact of the weak economy on voters under 30.
Our perspective in terms of policy is there should be greater economic opportunities, said Conway, a former chief of staff in the U.S. Department of Labor under President George W. Bush. Its one of the organizing principles.
Registration of unaffiliated voters is surging in the state, no more so than among young voters. Nearly 36 percent of voters 18 to 29 are registered unaffiliated, almost equal to registered Democrats of the same age. Hunter McMillian, a 20-year-old unaffiliated voter attending N.C. State, said he is economically conservative and socially liberal.
McMillian said he doesnt know which candidate would do a better job with the economy but he plans to vote for Obama because the Republican Party is far out of line with his social views. While he is thinking about the economy and what job hell land after graduation with a degree in communication media, he said his success in the job market is going to be up to him.
Im going to keep pushing and hope for luck in the job department, he said.
News researcher David Raynor contributed.