Mitt Romney has an opening with young voters

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Twenty years ago this month, Bill Clinton’s solo sax performance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” captivated the nation in what is considered a turning point in the 1992 election. It was the moment the relatively unknown Southern governor turned on his legendary charm and connected with America — particularly young voters. It’s fitting that Generation Y — that nebulous but massive voting bloc comprised of 70 million young Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 — is the flavor of the week in the current presidential campaign cycle.

Obama recently had his own breakthrough moment when his slow jam of the news on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” turned into a viral video sensation. Just like in 2008, he’s portraying himself as the self-effacing but cool big man on campus. Meanwhile, Romney is coming off as the rich, surly bully. It’s no surprise Obama has opened up a big lead over Romney in the youth vote — 64 percent to 29 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.

But the youth vote is not a slam dunk for Obama because neither candidate inspires Generation Y. About one in six young Americans is unemployed and less than one-third of them support the president’s handling of youth unemployment. Student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt, disproportionately affecting younger Americans. This elusive, fickle voting bloc has never been as volatile as it is today. That volatility creates a significant opportunity for whichever candidate wants to step up and take charge.

That’s why many Republican strategists see an opening for Romney. To open up. To show more of his personality. To win over the kids. If not, it’s feared he’ll fall into the trap of previous presidential aspirants like John Kerry, who never escaped the perception that he was elitist and out of touch. It’s been suggested that he do something similar to what Clinton did in 1992.

That would be a huge mistake.

The truism that young voters are idealistic and more willing to put social issues first — creating a usual slam dunk for Democrats — does not apply in 2012. Social justice, gender equality, gay marriage and abortion remain hot-button issues among young voters. Generation Y does want a president who is likeable, but what they want more than anything is substantive policy. The irony of Obama’s slow jam of the news is that most young people watched it in their parents’ homes while taking a break from surfing Internet job boards.

Even Jon Stewart, one of the most consistently liberal voices in the media, wasn’t buying Obama’s act. On a recent episode of “The Daily Show,” Stewart spoke directly to Obama: “Mr. President, you’re the president. You don’t have to do this s— anymore.”

That’s why Romney must embrace the perception that he is a shark in a suit, a master of capitalism, a guy who gets the job done. He must forgo the popularity contest and just do what he does best. For example, he could focus on advancing programs for social entrepreneurship — a growing business trend that offers the opportunity to provide social good within the construct of capitalism.

Last year, young Americans started about 2 million small businesses. The social media revolution has transformed Generation Y into a highly mobile and ambitious group eager to take risks and take charge as entrepreneurs. They scoff at being written off as lazy or entitled. They don’t want handouts. They want a chance — a chance to build something on their own, to create their own niche in the world using their own unique skills and experience.

They don’t need any more “hope” and “change” from a community organizer. They need a CEO to open the door for those opportunities through smart financial and operational management. Generation Y has seen enough John Hughes-inspired high school movies to know that the popular kid is an illusion and nerds always prevail in the end. If Romney wants to win the youth vote, he should give up on trying to compete with the cool kid and own every bit of his dorky, brainy reputation.

It’s easy to imagine that Obama will hold that 35-point lead among the youth vote. But it’s important to remember that in the last presidential election with a Democrat sitting in the White House — Bill Clinton in 2000 — young voters were split evenly between the parties. Thirty-six percent identified as Democratic and 35 percent identified as Republican. Clinton had a 63 percent national approval rating at the time. Obama will not reach those numbers in the next six months. Young voters don’t have years of ingrained party allegiance; instead they have three and a half years of hardship. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see party identification shift favorably to the Republicans in November.

Make no mistake: The youth vote is up for grabs in 2012. And if the polls remain as tight in five months as they are today, the youth vote could be a factor in swinging the election. It remains to be seen which candidate will be the first to truly embrace young voters. We’ll know the answer when the candidates stop running for prom king and start running for student council president.

Brad Chase is a partner with Capitol Media Partners, the international communications and public affairs firm based in Los Angeles. He was recently named to PR News’ 15 to Watch list, which recognizes the best communications executives in the United States under the age of 30. He has worked for Democratic political campaigns and causes but is now an independent. Twitter: mrbradchase

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