Americans who turned 18 just in time to vote in 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could cast ballots in a presidential election, celebrated their 56th birthdays this year. They are more than twice as likely to vote in November as those who turned 18 just in time to cast ballots in 2008. Indeed, if 18-to-29-year-olds repeat the historically lackdaisical mid-term voting pattern of their age group, it could be bad news for Democrats at a time when the party doesn't need any more of it. While voter turnout this year among Democrats of all age demographics is subject to the much-discussed, much-disputed "enthusiasm gap," that gap seems to be higher among young people than those 30 and older.
The Obama administration is campaigning hard to overcome this by courting young voters, especially college students, seeking to restore the fervor that helped solidify victory for the Democrats in 2008. On Oct. 14, as part of this effort, the President will host a "youth town hall" on MTV, MTVu, BET, Centric, TR3s and CMT. Vice President Joe Bidenis doing his part, too.
Because the target demographic, the "Millennials" born 1980-1992, tend to be more liberal on many issues than older voters, the outcome of this get-out-the-young-vote campaign could have a major impact on Democratic fortunes well beyond 2010 and perhaps determine how liberal the future Democratic Party will be. Not since the "Greatest Generation," comprising young adults during World War II, has any generation been so solidly identified with Democrats and liberal attitudes. Young voters are more diverse racially and ethnically than older voters, more secular in their religious views, more open to immigrants, more open to non-traditional family arrangements, more likely to do volunteer work, and less supportive of interventionist foreign policy. If Millennials were the only Americans casting ballots this year, it would be a clean sweep for Democrats. But obstacles abound in getting them to the polls.
The message the administration has been delivering since the President's conference call to student journalists Sept. 27 and the next day's rally of 26,000 mostly young people in Madison, Wisc., was in evidence Friday when Obama spoke at Bowie State University, an historically black university in Maryland:
What the other side is counting on … is that this time around you're going to stay home. They're counting on your silence. They're counting on amnesia. They're counting on your apathy, especially the young people here. They don't believe you're going to come out and vote. They figure Obama's not on the ballot, you're not going to come out and vote. Maryland, you've got to prove them wrong.
Whether they will is unclear. Three recent polls, commissioned by Rock the Vote, by ABC/Washington Post and by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press came up with very different numbers on this score. Seventy-seven percent of young Americans told Rock the Vote they are certain they will vote this year, 55 percent told ABC/Post pollsters they will, and 45 percent told Pew the same.
Whatever their intentions, however, it would be a miracle if young people actually made a showing anywhere close to the numbers indicated even in the Pew poll. The highest-ever under-30 voter turnout in a mid-term election was 31 percent in 1982. Most recently, in 2006, only 25.5 percent of Americans under 30 voted, and that was an improvement over the two previous mid-term elections. The answer to whether those numbers can be improved further is an extremely tentative maybe. Only a prodigious effort in the next three weeks could make it happen.
As can be seen in the charts below, young adults have always tended to vote in far lower percentages than those age 30 and older. The median level of the youth vote in the past nine presidential elections was 21 points below that of older voters. But the median level of the young adult vote in mid-term elections was 29 points less than for the older population.
|Presidential Elections Voters 18-to-29 Voters over 30|
|Mid-Term Elections Voters 18-to-29 Voters over 30|
As noted, young voters are, on average, more liberal than older ones. In the past three elections - 2004, 2006, and 2008 - voters under 30 have given the Democratic Party a majority of their votes. Indeed, they have been the party's most supportive age group. In 2008, the 2-1 margin they gave Barack Obama over John McCain marked a disparity larger than in any presidential election since exit polling began in 1972.
However, since the under-30 cohort comprised slightly less than one-fifth of all voters in 2008, the only way to leverage the more liberal electoral impact of youth is to spur them to support candidates by lopsided margins, which is what they did in 2008 by voting for Obama. But, while he remains popular among young voters, he is not on the ballot, and the election is far more local than in a presidential election year. That doesn't mean he can't have an impact. For one thing, half of young people say they are more likely to support a candidate endorsed by President Obama.
But in terms of the local nature of mid-term elections, it should be remembered that while the under-30 voter turnout rose 2 percentage points nationwide in 2008, that rise was geographically uneven. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, the Tufts University project that tracks and analyzes the youth vote, points out that no increase took place in the majority of states. According to CIRCLE Director Peter Levine:
“This midterm election the youth voter turnout could also vary widely state-by-state depending on the number and intensity of statewide and local elections. … We saw this before in the 2006 midterms when the national youth voter turnout was 26 percent, but in Minnesota it was 43 percent due to the hotly contested governor’s race, but only 17 percent in Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.”
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, says there is still a chance to engage young voters:
"If the candidates running for office in a number of these states with competitive races actually invest in young people and can follow up on the momentum created by the president's rallies on campuses around the country, it will have a huge impact," she says. "But the candidates have to take the baton and run with it."
Turnout, however, isn't the only problem. Young voters do not favor the Democratic Party as much as they do Barack Obama. A Rock the Vote poll released in mid-September found that 34 percent of adults age 18 to 29 said they wanted Democrats to keep control of Congress, while 28 percent favored a switch to Republicans. But a plurality of 36 percent said they didn't think it matters which party wins. An NDN survey in June found similar attitudes.
The first sign of disaffection from the Democrats was chronicled by Pew back in February. Between late 2008 and late 2009, the Democratic edge over Republicans in party affiliation among young voters, including those who "lean" toward one party or another, had shrunk from a 32-point margin to just 14 points.
But a Pew survey in early September showed some movement in the other direction. Now 56 percent of Millennials identify as or lean Democratic while 36 percent identify as, or lean, Republican, a 20-point margin. Among those age 30 and older, that margin is only one point, 46 percent identifying with the Democrats, or leaning that way, and 45 percent identifying with, or leaning toward, the Republicans. In 2008, the Democratic lead among those older age groups was 50 percent to 40 percent. So, despite the slippage, the differences between the two age groups remain wide.
Attitudinally, that's true as well.
In early September surveys of Millennials by the New Policy Institute in Colorado and Florida, interviewers found that nearly half of Colorado Millennials and four in 10 Florida Millennials themselves liberal or progressive. The numbers are higher for women, Latinos and African Americans, lower for whites and men.
Party attitudes and ideological alignment for Millennials surveyed in Florida and Colorado can be seen in a chart here.
Young voters in Florida prefer Democrats narrowly in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races and by a wide margin on the Congressional generic ballot. Colorado Millennials favor Democratic candidates in all key races. But in both states there are significant numbers of undecided young voters.
Ideological viewpoints of Millennials in those two states are similar to those in September's nationwide Pew survey.
Among white Millennials, party affiliation is nearly evenly divided (46% Democratic, 45% Republican). Among non-white Millennials, the Democratic Party enjoys an overwhelming 75%-to-17% advantage, nearly as large as in 2008 (when it was 78% to 14%). …
Millennials, in addition to being more socially liberal, tend to see government as more effective than older generations. While they are not necessarily more supportive than their elders of broad social safety net programs, they are substantially more supportive of government regulation, affirmative action and less likely to accuse the government of being wasteful and inefficient. In this regard, Millennials are the only age group in which more voters prefer a bigger government providing more services than a smaller government providing fewer services.
One potential bright spot in an election in which it's-the-economy-stupid is that Millennials are more upbeat than older generations about the economy, and are far more likely to believe it is improving or it soon will. This is the case in spite of the fact that someone in their household or they themselves are 11 percent more likely than the overall population to have been out of a job and looking for work in the past year.
On other specifics relevant to this year's election:
• 67 percent oppose modifying the 14th Amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. Among older generations, 51 percent favor the change.
• 34 percent want to let all of the Bush 2001 tax cuts to expire. An additional 26 percent favor letting the tax cuts expire for those earning more than $250,000 but remain in place for other Americans. Among older Americans, 26 percent favor ending all the tax cuts, while a plurality of 30 percent want all of them to remain in force.
• 52 percent oppose replacing Medicare with vouchers to allow Medicare recipients to buy their own private health care insurance.
• 53 percent favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Among Baby Boomers, 52 percent are opposed, and among the Greatest Generation, 71 percent are opposed.
In the long run, all this would seem to be a good omen for liberals. Research over the past half century shows that "once political identifications and attitudes are formed in early adulthood, they tend to solidify and remain constant for a lifetime." That gives hope to liberals in those generations where they make up, at best, a fourth of the total demographic. After all, the Millennials who made up 18 percent of the 2008 electorate will account for 24 percent of it in 2012 and 36 percent in 2020 when the youngest Millennials come of voting age. On some issues, at least, they seem destined to push the Democratic Party leftward.
If, that is, they vote. In an election where their turnout could mean the difference in some races crucial to keeping ever-more extremist Republicans from regaining control of Congress and of state legislatures where redistricting may be the hottest item on the 2011 agenda, that's a mighty big if.