Thursday night at the Democratic convention, President Barack Obama could continue relentlessly assaulting Gov. Mitt Romney, put the best face on his own record, or offer a substantive vision for the future. But no matter what themes he emphasizes, we know his acceptance speech will target groups that propelled him to victory in 2008 and remain critical to his re-election, especially Hispanics, women and young people.
The good news for Mr. Obama is that he has maintained his 2008 margin among Hispanics. The bad news is that less than half (42%) of Hispanic respondents said they were "very interested" in November's election, according to an Aug. 20 NBC/WSJ/Telemundo poll.
The news is worse among women. Despite a summer of Democratic attacks on the GOP for waging a "war on women," the president's "unfavorable impression" rating among women is up 11 points since April to 50% unfavorable/46% favorable in this week's ABC/Washington Post poll.
This has depressed his overall favorable/unfavorable rating to 46%/49%, only slightly better than Mr. Romney's 43%/48%. The percentage of women with a "favorable impression" of Mr. Romney is up eight points since April.
Then there are voters ages 18 to 29, among Mr. Obama's most important supporters in 2008. The roughly 23.7 million "millennials" who voted in 2008 were 18% of the electorate, up 2.9 million voters over the previous presidential race. They gave Mr. Obama 66% to Sen. John McCain's 32%, according to exit polls. This margin of roughly eight million votes was a major chunk of Mr. Obama's overall edge of 9.6 million.
But youthful enthusiasm for Mr. Obama has waned. In October 2008, 78% of voters 18-29 told Gallup they would definitely vote that year. Now it's 58%.
There's also evidence that fewer younger people are registered. A November 2011 study from Tufts University found that 43% of the decline in Nevada's voter rolls since 2008 came from voters ages 18-24. Similarly, while North Carolina's rolls rose by 93,709 over that period, more than 48,000 younger voters were dropped from the rolls, 80% of them Democrats.
Mr. Obama's lead over Mr. Romney in the latest JZ Analytics poll among voters ages 18-29 is 49% to 41%. If young voters turn out this fall in the same numbers as in 2008 and give Mr. Obama this eight-point margin, it will take 2.8 million votes from Mr. Obama's total and add more than 3.3 million to Mr. Romney's tally.
Why does Mr. Obama dramatically trail his 2008 performance among younger voters? His failures to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, abruptly end U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, or make global warming a centerpiece of his agenda probably affect only a small number of young liberals.
Mr. Obama's biggest problem with millennials is almost certainly his failure to reignite the economy. Robust growth is needed to create the new jobs they need.
The anemic 2.2% annual growth since 2009 has resulted in 12.7% unemployment among young men and women ages 18-29, according a July poll by Generation Opportunity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization mobilizing young voters. Over 1.7 million young adults have become so discouraged that they have dropped out of the workforce. Youth unemployment would be 16.7% if they were factored in.
College graduates often find no one is hiring in their chosen career. Student loan debt is at record levels. According to a Pew Research Center survey in December, 53% of all young adults ages 18-24 said they "live with parents now or moved back in with parents temporarily because of [the] economy."
The July poll by Generation Opportunity reported that 84% of young Americans are delaying important decisions or feel their plans are in jeopardy. More than a third—38%—are delaying finding their own place. Some 31% said they are delaying starting a family, and 23% said they are delaying getting married. Dangerously for the president, 76% believe the lack of job opportunities—not the lack of government—is shrinking the middle class.
On every front, Mr. Obama is on the defensive, fighting to keep states and voter groups in his winning coalition. He can absorb some erosion from his 2008 totals, but not much. Right now the signs are ominous for him.
Mr. Romney—with his young and personable running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan—can make real inroads with frustrated and disappointed millenials who supported Mr. Obama four years ago. These young voters are willing to give Messrs. Romney and Ryan a hearing. The Republicans ticket has 61 days to persuade them that the GOP is the party of opportunity and ideas.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, September 5, 2012.