One of the heartening aspects of the 2008 election was that 18-to-29-year-old Americans tied the 1972 record turn-out for their age group. An estimated 23 million voters under 30 voted, and two-thirds cast ballots for Barack Obama. That result led a few amateur observers to the rash conclusion that the nation was headed into some invincible Democratic Party juggernaut for a generation or two because those energized voters would continue to choose Democrats.
In Massachusetts Tuesday, young people flattened that idea, according to a survey by Rasmussen Reports for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. It's not that they gave Republican Scott Brown the majority of their votes. They didn't. Those who voted preferred Martha Coakley by nearly 3:2. Nothing like the 4:1 margin they gave Obama in 2008, but still respectable.
In '08, however, 47.8% of the under-30s voted in Massachusetts, compared with 81% of the 30-and-over population. On Tuesday, only 15% of young voters cast ballots, compared with 57% of the 30-and-over population. The Massachusetts vote isn't the first sign of dwindling interest by youth. Last year, 17% of young voters showed up for the Virginia governor's contest, 19% for New Jersey's.
It's unknown how much of this fall-off in Massachusetts can be attributed to a get-out-the-vote effort that ignored young voters, according to some people with inside knowledge of the poorly organized Coakley campaign. If that was the campaign's approach, it obviously was yet another misstep by the organizers.
“Three state elections do not necessarily make a national trend, but there is clearly an issue right now with youth turnout and enthusiasm,” said CIRCLE director Peter Levine. “It will be interesting to see the turnout of young voters in November’s mid-term elections.” ...
Their most important issue was the economy, whereas for voters overall, the number one issue was health care.
Of those Massachusetts voters who said that health care was the most important issue in the Senate campaign (56%), 86% opposed the Democrats’ plan. That was probably one contributor to Scott Brown’s victory. But young voters favored the health care plan, 55%-40%.
Young voters were less likely to be “strong” supporters of President Obama than Massachusetts voters overall (30% of youth versus 35% of all voters), but they were more likely to support him at least “somewhat.” (Sixty-seven percent support the president somewhat or strongly.)
A megaton of commentary has already been written about whether the Massachusetts race was a referendum on President Obama or his policies. The majority of voters there voiced general approval of Obama. But attitudes toward the administration's policies are another matter. And those attitudes may well have had some dampening effect on the youth vote.
Two months ago, Harvard's Institute of Politics released its biennial survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service. The survey of 2807 18-to-29-year-olds found that 58% approved of Obama's overall performance, several points higher than the approval rating given him by the overall U.S. population. At the same time, however, youth disapproved of his handling of specific issues, including the economy (52% disapproved), health care (52% disapproved), Iran (53% disapproved), the federal budget deficit (58% disapproved) and Afghanistan (55% disapproved - the poll was taken three weeks before the President announced his decision to send more troops, something that
66% of those surveyed said they opposed).
Whether views like those plus general impatience with the pace in Washington were demotivating factors in Tuesday's election, this plunge in the youth turnout ought to get some serious attention from Democratic leaders unless they want to see Massachusetts repeated in races across the country come November.