But that’s a 17-point smaller advantage than Obama enjoyed in September, according to Pew. Young voters who overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2008 are returning to a more historically typical pattern in 2012 of voting along similar lines as their elders, Levine said.
The tea party and Occupy movements, along with the campus popularity of presidential candidates such as Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), who sought the GOP nomination without success, and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, are further fracturing the youth vote, he added.
“The gap is more normal,” Levine said. “Obama enthusiasm is probably somewhat down; Romney enthusiasm is probably better than McCain enthusiasm was.”
Such shifts will not necessarily benefit Romney, however. While the percentage of young voters following campaign news very closely is down compared with 2008, according to a September Pew Research Center survey, the drop was even more pronounced among young voters backing the GOP nominee.
Ironically, GOP-backed restrictions on voter registration and ballot access in more than a dozen states may affect the Republican youth vote drive. Student voters tend to lack the photo IDs that are now required to vote in many states, experts say.
Voter registration groups such as the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote, moreover, have been so busy challenging the new restrictions in court that they’ve had fewer resources to concentrate on actually registering voters.
“We’re out doing our work and fighting these laws at the same time,” Rock the Vote President Heather Smith said. Despite a string of court victories, such groups are now scrambling to clear up widespread confusion over the rules.
Even a small shift in youth voting patterns could make a big difference. About 46 million young Americans are eligible to vote, according to CIRCLE. If 51 percent of them turn out, as was the case in 2008, that’s more than 23 million voters. GOP college student Sam Bain, chairman of the Ohio College Republican Federation, said, “We don’t even have to win the majority of the youth vote to win the election.”