WASHINGTON -- After winning the youth vote in 2008 by nearly 2-to-1, the Obama campaign has doubled down on efforts to expand the base of young voters who were key to propelling the president to the White House.
Over the past year, the campaign says, it has recruited thousands of young volunteers to help with voter outreach efforts on campuses and across the country. The campaign has dispatched high-profile Obama surrogates - including White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and campaign manager Jim Messina- to a dozen campuses for student summits to promote Obama's record and listen to young voters talk about issues important to them.
And on Saturday - in another sign of respect for the power the youth vote wields - the president and first lady Michelle Obama plan to hold the first official campaign rallies of 2012 at Ohio State University in Columbus and at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
The two urban campuses are in states where youth voters could play a crucial role in deciding whether Obama wins a second term. "The youth vote will be critical," said Isaac Sarver, president of Virginia Young Democrats and a senior at the College of William & Mary. "If we see the president do well in urban areas, in college communities, in areas where there are a lot of young professionals. I think we will win."
In a difficult economy where the youth unemployment rate stands at 16.4%, Obama faces a difficult task in trying to replicate the kind of young voter turnout from 2008.
Obama holds a commanding 64%-29% lead over Romney among registered voters ages 18-29, according to a Gallup Poll released last week. But the same poll found only 56% of young voters said they will "definitely" vote - a lower rate than any other age group.
Another recent poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics shows that Obama is not yet finding the same level of support among young voters that he did in 2008, but the president is starting to expand his lead against the likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney with Millennials. Obama holds a 17-point lead over Romney among 18- to 29-year-olds in the Harvard poll, up from the 11-point lead he held over Romney in November.
Young voters accounted for 18% of ballots cast in 2008 - making up about the same proportion of the electorate as they have in every presidential election since 1996.
But because they voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama, they've gained outsize clout with the campaign.
Obama campaign aides argue that the president will continue to gain momentum with young voters now that Romney has cemented the GOP nomination. Obama's efforts to end the war in Iraq, abolish a rule that prohibited openly gay and lesbian troops from serving in the military, and his backing of a provision in the health care law that has allowed 2.5 million young adults to remain on their parents' health insurance are among the policy achievements that resonate with young voters, aides say. "Young Americans recognize what's at stake, and the contrast with Mitt Romney could not be more clear," said Clo Ewing, an Obama campaign spokeswoman.
Among some young voters, there is a measure of frustration with the partisan conversation in Washington and concern that Obama has fallen short in being the "hope-and-change" politician he was branded on the campaign trail in 2008.
At the University of North Carolina, freshman John Murray said he had mixed feelings.
Obama recently traveled to North Carolina - a state where the president pulled out a narrow victory in 2008 with the help of 74% of the youth vote - to call on Congress to pass legislation to keep interest rates on students from doubling. It's an issue that Murray, 18, said is important to him and his friends, many who will leave school with a mountain of debt.
Still, Murray, who described himself as an independent voter, said he's not exactly thrilled with all of what he sees with Obama. "He's making too many promises, and he's putting too much of the blame on Congress," Murray said.
Alex Borgen, 22, a UNC senior who volunteered for Obama's campaign in 2008, said he remains pleased with the president. But he worries that "things got a little messy" for Obama and some young people are now "way less enamored with him."
"I think they're just going to end up sitting on their hands," Borgen said.
Republicans haven't conceded the young vote, either.
John Scott, chairman of the Young Republican Federation of Virginia, said in an interview that Republicans in his swing state will highlight to voters that Virginia's economy has done relatively well despite Obama and because of the efforts of GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell and the commonwealth's Republican-controlled assembly.
"I think Virginia's young voters understand that the crushing debt and spending philosophy of this president imperils our future," Scott said. "He is trying to pander to the same young voters that have been left holding the bag, and we're not going for it again."
But as the Obama campaign proved in 2008, there's reason not to underestimate its organizing effort, particularly among young voters. After 60% of young Virginians cast ballots for Obama in 2008 and helped pave the way for him to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win there since Lyndon Johnson, the Obama campaign has only pushed to broaden the base in the Old Dominion state.
"In the end, I am not worried that the energy will be there," Sarver said. "We'll be ready."