ROCHESTER HILLS, Michigan (Reuters) - Megan Edwin graduated Phi Beta Kappa in political science. As a student, she had internships in local government and worked as a waitress to help pay tuition. She is poised, articulate - and after a year of job hunting, a tad desperate.
“I’d be happy to work at almost anything,” she said recently. “Much of the time, you apply and never hear back. I feel I‘m talking to the wind.”
The 23-year-old, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan’s Albion College last year, has posted her resume on websites, chatted up recruiters at a career fair and applied for jobs as far away as Boston and New Haven. So far she has had interviews for a secretarial job and a call center job. Neither panned out.
Edwin is the sort of voter Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee for president, hopes to woo - the victim of a torpid economy that Romney blames on President Barack Obama. She lives in Lake Orion, Michigan, 16 miles from Romney’s childhood home in Bloomfield Hills.
Nonetheless, Edwin, who voted for Obama in 2008, is not tempted. “Am I comfortable with the direction the nation’s going in?” she asks. “No. It was a mess for Obama going in. But some things are better now. Having the Republicans back would be disastrous.”
In 2008, voters under 30 formed about 17 percent of the electorate. They cast twice as many ballots for Obama as for John McCain. By contrast, only half of voters over 30 backed the Democratic nominee. It was the biggest generation gap in four decades of modern election polling.
Almost four years later, speculation is rising that stubbornly high unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds - at 9.3 percent for college graduates and 12.9 percent overall - will cause them to abandon the president in November, or simply stay home.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll of recent graduates reveals a drop in support for Obama compared with 2008, but it shows no movement toward the GOP. If the election were held today, 52 percent said they would vote for the president, and 27 percent for Romney. (The poll surveyed those who graduated from four-year colleges since 2008.)
Far from remaining aloof, 58 percent of recent college graduates said they have “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of interest in the upcoming presidential election. That compares with 62 percent who went to the polls four years ago.
In Michigan as across the country, a number of recent initiatives are likely to boost Obama’s appeal with twentysomethings: his push for a freeze on the interest rate for federally subsidized student loans, his endorsement of gay marriage, and his offer of work permits for more than a million young undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, 6.6 million Americans are taking advantage of a provision in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, that allows them to get health insurance on their parents’ plans through age 26.
Among them is Edwin, the Albion College graduate, whose father is a retired sheriff’s deputy. She had knee surgery last year after an injury suffered in college failed to heal. “I could never have done that on my own,” she said.
Michigan has chosen Democrats in the past five presidential elections. In 2008, Obama won the state by 16 points. However, in the 2010 midterm elections, the GOP captured the governorship along with both houses of the legislature.
Romney’s late father, George, was a former auto executive who served three terms as the state’s governor. “If Michigan gives me the win, I’ll be the next president of the United States,” the GOP candidate predicted this month as he campaigned in the state.
Stopping in three Michigan towns during a five-state bus tour, Romney decried the growing federal deficit, adding, “It’s simply wrong for my generation to spend massively” and leave “young kids ... stuck with massive debts.”
Polls show the president and Romney neck and neck in the state.
Nationally, Obama has been far more aggressive in courting the younger generation. In April he “slow-jammed” his college loan message on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” punctuated by smooth jazz and Fallon’s quips. The video of the performance racked up 5.7 million views.
Touring campuses, Obama called on students to tweet members of Congress about the student loan bill with the hashtag #DontDoubleMyRate. His Twitter feed has 17 million followers - compared with 590,000 for Romney‘s. His Facebook page has 27 million subscribers; Romney’s has 2 million.
The president’s strategy hasn’t altered the fact that, overall, recent college graduates are unhappy with the status quo. In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, 54 percent say the country is on the wrong track.
That doesn’t mean they are in despair. Sixty percent say Americans “can still live the American dream.” Only 17 percent think they will be less successful than their parents.
“I was really excited when Obama won,” said Joe Zmudczynski, a 2011 graduate of Michigan’s Ferris State University. “He’s still my favorite. It’s not like you can snap your fingers and everything gets better.”
Zmudczynski, who majored in sports management, moved to Arizona after graduation for a sales job with a chain of fitness centers, only to discover that he couldn’t make ends meet on 100 percent commission, even working 80 hours a week. He returned to Michigan to live with his parents in February and has yet to find a new position.
“It makes me feel like a failure,” he said.
Still, he sees hopeful signs. “In 2008, with the foreclosures, there were for-sale signs everywhere,” Zmudczynski said. “Now, Michigan is turning around. My siblings bought houses recently and got good deals. Unemployment is not as bad as it was.”
Michigan was hit hard by the recession: Joblessness peaked in 2009 at 14.8 percent. Today it is down to 8.5 percent, slightly above the national average, an improvement that could work in Obama’s favor.
To be sure, Detroit, which is preparing to lay off thousands of city workers, remains mired in fiscal and political disarray. Yet overall, state finances are on the mend. Thanks to a revenue boost, officials agreed last month to hike spending on roads, schools and welfare, as well as enact a small tax cut.
Most significantly, the auto industry, buoyed by an infusion of federal funds, is roaring back to life. The Obama campaign doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind Rust Belt voters that the president supported the 2009 bailout of Chrysler and General Motors - and Romney didn‘t.
In a 2008 New York Times op-ed headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” Romney argued that the companies should go through bankruptcy without government help. The GOP candidate has since called the auto bailout “crony capitalism on a grand scale,” which rewarded “union bosses.”
During his bus tour, as Romney campaigned near Lake Michigan, a plane swooped overhead, towing a banner reading “‘Let Detroit go bankrupt.’ Really Mitt?”
“VERY, VERY STRESSFUL”
In the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, several hundred job hunters thronged a recent career fair. Colorful displays advertised openings at Prudential Insurance, Avon Products, the Air National Guard, Value City Furniture, and Big Boy Restaurants. Many of the posted jobs paid minimum wage or were commission-only.
Daniel Henris, a 2010 graduate of Wayne State University who majored in human resource management, talked to 30 recruiters that day. Six asked for his resume, but none showed interest afterward.
“I’ve been to maybe 16 job fairs,” he said. “You wait in line behind six people, and by the time you get to the front there are six people behind you. It is very, very stressful.”
The son of an auto mechanic and a florist, Henris is the first in his family to attend college. It took him nine years to get his degree. He took classes at night, worked days at a convenience store, changed majors when “accounting didn’t resonate with me” and at one point dropped out for 18 months when he ran out of money.
Henris voted for Obama in 2008 but is undecided this year. “The economy is the main issue. I identify with Romney because he is a businessman. I just want to start making some money myself.”
On the other hand, he praised the president for “charisma,” said he “did a good job with (Osama) bin Laden” and added, “It’s important that he took a stand on student loans.”
With college debt of $25,000, Henris is typical of recent graduates. The average cost of both public and private colleges has more than doubled in three decades. Today, 94 percent of students - up from 45 percent in 1993 - borrow to pay for higher education. Nationwide, student loan balances top $1 trillion - more than credit-card debt.
Obama takes credit for doubling the number of low-income students receiving Pell Grants, to 9 million, since 2008. He also pushed through Congress a tax credit of up to $2,500 in annual college tuition relief, capped payments for new borrowers and ended subsidies for middlemen lenders.
This spring, as House Republicans blocked the president’s proposal to freeze the student loan interest rate, his campaign focused on the issue. “Michelle and I, we’ve been in your shoes,” Obama told a University of North Carolina crowd in April. “We didn’t come from wealthy families. ... We only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.”
The comment offered a sharp contrast with Romney, a former private equity executive with a net worth of more than $200 million. The GOP candidate had earlier criticized “the government’s taking over the student loan business” and “taxpayers having to subsidize people who want to go to school.”
However, Romney quickly shifted gears, declaring that he, too, favored a freeze. The rate was scheduled to double, to 6.8 percent, on July 1, which would have cost 7 million borrowers an average of $1,000 a year.
Late Wednesday, congressional leaders reached agreement on how to finance the $6 billion annual price tag of the rate freeze, intending to push it through both the House of Representatives and the Senate before the July 4 recess.
In Michigan the Obama campaign is ahead of Romney’s in grassroots organizing but has yet to hit the airwaves. Meanwhile, advocacy groups have spent about $6 million on anti-Obama TV ads in the state since March. One spot shows a mother whose adult children have moved in with her. “Obama added almost $16,000 in debt for every American,” she says. “How will my kids pay that off when they can’t even find jobs?”
Charrie McFadden, a 2011 graduate of Oakland University, outside Detroit, can identify with the message. A biology major, she also made the rounds at the Rochester Hills job fair. Like many, she is underemployed: Hoping to find a job in the medical field, she has been working part-time at a clothing store. After college, she moved back with her parents.
McFadden’s recent two-week paycheck was $191. “I spent about $60 getting to work and back and another $55 on car insurance and another $70 on health insurance and my phone bill,” she said. “I can’t afford to pay rent, let alone utilities or food ... I feel people are looking down at me.”
McFadden, 24, is an evangelical Christian who supported McCain in 2008 and expects to vote for Romney, partly because he is strongly anti-abortion, she said. “Republicans are for the middle class,” she added. “Democrats want to help out poor people who don’t have much going for them.”
Conservatives such as McFadden are outnumbered in her age group. When recent graduates were asked which party best serves the needs of young Americans, they cited Democrats over Republicans by 50 percent to 17 percent.
Edwin, the Albion College graduate, cited her “pro-choice” stance on abortion along with funding for public schools, gay rights and getting out of the Iraq war as reasons to vote for Obama. “I‘m a social issue voter,” she said.
She has no doubt that she’ll get to the polls on November 6.
Editing by Lee Aitken, Douglas Royalty and Prudence Crowther