LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
President Obama travels to Mooresville, North Carolina today. He'll highlight the town's middle school and its focus on technology and digital learning. It's part of what the White House is calling the president's Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour. Jobs and education are big issues for younger voters, one of the most sought after demographics for both parties.
NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's not easy being a young person in today's economy. The unemployment rate for college graduates is over 25 percent, and for high school graduates it's even worse.
Peter Levine is the director of CIRCLE, a non-partisan research center that studies young people as citizens.
PETER LEVINE: About half of young people go to college today and about half do not, and actually only about a quarter really make it through to a four year degree. And even that group is having a lot of trouble getting jobs, or at least getting the jobs they expected to get.
LIASSON: Not surprisingly, more young people are postponing marriage, family and homeownership, the kinds of commitments that historically have characterized voters open to the Republican message. And, says Peter Levine, recently young voters have been voting for Democrats.
LEVINE: Democrats have the upper hand. They won the youth vote in the last two presidential elections and young people seem basically supportive of them.
LIASSON: This week, the College Republican National Committee took the first step toward changing that by taking a survey of voters under 30 to find out why they don't vote Republican. CRNC Chair Alex Smith announced the report on the group's website.
ALEX SMITH: As leader of over 250,000 college Republicans, I'm committed to showing my peers and younger voters just what the Republican Party has to offer.
LIASSON: One task for Republicans is changing the tone on issues like gay marriage, contraception and immigration. But Kirsten Soltis Anderson, the Republican pollster who conducted the survey, found something else that surprised her.
KIRSTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON: The conventional wisdom is that it's social issues that are standing in the way. Our research actually found that's not necessarily the case. The real problem is the economy. There's a sense that Republicans aren't necessarily the party that is going to help you move up the ladder but that they're the party that's going to be great for you once you make it to the top of the ladder. And for many young voters who are just starting off in life, they have a lot of student loan debt, they're struggling to get a job because youth unemployment is so high - they're wondering what the Republican Party's solutions are to those problems.
LIASSON: But while the Republican Party regroups and struggles to come up with an agenda to meet these concerns, the Democrats are busy pressing their advantage. This week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running ads aimed at young voters with student debt. Emily Bittner is a spokesperson for the DCCC.
EMILY BITTNER: We wanted to talk to students directly, and so we reached out to newspapers that are still publishing over the summer on college campuses and published print and online ads asking why their congressmen want students to pay more, which is a consequence of what House Republicans would do when it comes to student loans.
LIASSON: The irony here is that President Obama, while he has an agenda aimed at young people's needs - the student loan rate cap, investments in education, a hike in the minimum wage - hasn't been able to pass it. But what Anderson found in the GOP's survey is that young voters tend to give the president the benefit of the doubt.
ANDERSON: The number one word that came up in our responses was the word trying. They felt like he was putting up some sort of an effort. It's a relatively low bar for Republicans to overcome, but they do need to have that agenda that is focused on sort of day-to-day pocketbook issues that matter to young people in order for them to begin winning a greater share of the youth vote.
LIASSON: If they don't, says Anderson, the GOP will cease to be a viable party in the future.
ANDERSON: Once you voted for a party a couple of times, it becomes habit forming. And when you go to the ballot box for the rest of your life, you'll be slightly more inclined to repeat that behavior and cast a ballot for that same party. It's a massive issue because it's not just about the elections in the next two to four years; it's about the sustainability of the Republican Party long term over the next few decades.
LIASSON: It's an existential problem for the GOP, but Peter Levine thinks Republicans have an opening because young people, despite their pro-Democratic bias, are ambivalent about the basic premise of the Obama presidency, that the federal government can help improve their lives.
LEVINE: They're quite uncertain and trying to figure out how to interpret the last five years. Was it five years of recovery or was it five years of sputtering insufficient recovery? So, it's debatable, and I think they're having the debate.
LIASSON: In the upcoming election cycles, young voters will have that debate without Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, and that might help level the playing field a bit for Republicans, if they can come up with policies that speak to young voters' economic concerns. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.