Accentuating a trend that had started four years before, young voters broke big for the Democratic presidential ticket: Obama and Joe Biden garnered some 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 — a huge generation — and the raw number of young voters increased as well. There are many ways to slice the electorate demographically, but one thing seems clear: Had those numbers been reversed, John McCain would be in the Oval Office today.

But that was three years ago, and there are any number of signs that the youngest cohort of voting-age Americans are distressed by the direction their nation is heading in and that millions of them are disenchanted with the man they helped into office in 2008.

For starters, the dominant political issue in the United States right now is the economy — and this is especially true for the newest entrants to the workforce. A new national poll of 18- to 29-year-olds by Harvard’s Institute of Politics released Thursday showed that in an open-ended question — meaning without prompting by the question — 74 percent of respondents cited the economy as the most important issue.

On that issue, only 32 percent approve of the way President Obama is handling the economy. This mirrors a finding in a poll done in April by a group called Generation Opportunity. The Harvard survey is overseen by John Della Volpe, a Democrat; Generation’s Opportunity’s researcher is Kellyanne Conway, a Republican who was retained this week by Newt Gingrich. But both are highly respected professionals — and their data dovetailed neatly.

The upshot is that Obama has work to do among his most loyal generational cohort. In the Harvard poll, under-30s believe by a 4-1 margin that America is headed in the “wrong” direction. This is a number that would spell trouble for any incumbent, and not just one whose candidacy promised “hope” and whose mantra “Change you can believe in” was tailored to young voters.

“This demographic is in play for 2012,” Generation Opportunity President Paul T. Conway (no relation to Kellyanne) told RealClearPolitics on Thursday. “This is a generation that believes in aspiration — they are not well-wired for frustration. They don’t want to settle.”

Della Volpe, who called his latest findings “an ominous sign” for the president’s re-election chances, concurs. “Short of a big improvement in the economy, it’s going to be tough,” he said in an interview from Boston. “Obama won among young people not only because they voted for him, but because they volunteered and spread the word among their generation. They’re not going to want to do that on a lost cause.”

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