Low youth voter turnout may have hurt Democrats during midterms

Billy Hallowell Contributor
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In 2008, millennial voters – those individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 – played a key role in then-candidate Barack Obama’s historic victory. While young voters came out in record numbers in 2008, the 2010 midterms were starkly different. Poll numbers appear to show what some call a general skepticism and lack of enthusiasm among young voters – a result that may have had a profound impact on midterm election results.

It is no secret that the left has traditionally captured the majority of the youth vote. While young voters continue to trend more liberal than they do conservative, a glimpse into recent poll numbers does show cause for Democratic concern. While the momentum of youth support for Barack Obama appeared to be growing back in 2008, the picture leading up to the 2010 midterms was quite different.

Back in 2008, Time magazine found that 74 percent of under-30 voters were paying attention to the presidential campaign, compared to only 42 percent during the 2004 campaign. At the same time, Time Magazine asked 18 to 29-year-olds, “Which political party understands the needs of people like yourself?”  Forty-three percent of respondents answered “Democratic Party,” while only 33 percent said “Republican Party.” This party-allegiance disparity was corroborated on Election Day.

Millennials came out to the polls en masse to support Obama in 2008. According to the Center for American Progress, 66% of millennials supported Barack Obama, while only 32% supported John McCain. Just over a year after Obama was elected, however, polls seemed to show a decline in youth support for the Democratic Party. In December 2009, while Democrats still held a sizable advantage over Republicans among young voters, the Pew Research Center found the gap had narrowed with 54 percent of young voters claiming that they were Democrats and 40 percent saying they were Republicans.

Millennial support for Obama’s performance has declined over time as well. According to Gallup, 75 percent of young voters approved of Obama’s job performance in Jan. 2009. This performance rating has fluctuated during the president’s first two years in office, but the overall trend showcases a precipitous decline in support. During the week leading up to the 2010 midterms, 52 percent of millennials approved of Obama’s job performance; this was down from 57 percent at the end of September. Obama’s lowest rating among millennials occurred this past August with only 46 percent of that group saying they supported the president. While it may still be too early to tie all of the pieces together on the youth vote front, polls show that fewer millennials made it to the polls on Nov. 2.

In fact, CBS News exit polling showed a steep decline in the proportion of millennials who came out to vote. While young voters made up 18 percent of those who cast ballots in 2008, they only accounted for 11 percent of voters in the 2010 House of Representatives exit poll. According to projections by CIRCLE, Politics Daily reported that only 20 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds voted (compared to 52 percent in 2008 and 26 percent in the 2006 midterms).

While some experts say that 20 percent is not unusual for a midterm vote, following such high youth voter engagement in 2008, the notion that the Democrats would, once again, benefit from intense youth support did not seem beyond the realm of possibility. According to the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, “Following the 2008 presidential election, there was a growing sense around the country that the habitually underrepresented youth vote may have turned the corner and established themselves as consistent civic participators.” Instead, the results of the 2010 election showcase a generation that has not deviated significantly from its generally lackluster voting pattern.

In the weeks leading up to the election, special appeals were made by Obama to millennials through a town hall meeting broadcasted on MTV, a campaign rally with the musical group the Roots and a pre-election interview with popular Comedy Central host John Stewart. The impact these actions had on encouraging greater youth turnout is difficult to gauge, though experts contend that both sides could have done a better job engaging young people along the way.

With so many young people coming out to the polls in 2008, there was certainly room to engage these individuals in 2010.  While polls do show declines in millennial support for the Democrats, an increase in millennial voter turnout would likely have benefited Democrats more than it would have Republicans. Thus, the decline in youth votes may have been a detriment to the Democratic cause on Election Day

According to Politics Daily, Matthew Segal, executive director of Student Organization for Voter Empowerment, explained that, “a lack of a consistent dialogue between political leaders and young voters over the past two years led to disenchantment and disinterest among America’s youth.”  And Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, said, “The Democrats could have seen a very different outcome had they engaged in targeting young voters.”

In Sep. 2010, CNN reported on a study from Rock the Vote that found that, while young voters were optimistic about millennial ability to make change, they were more skeptical about politics than they were in 2008.  Additionally, the Pew Research Center found that Republican youths were more engaged and had spent more time thinking about the 2010 midterm election. While 39 percent of young Republicans had given a lot of thought to the election, the Pew survey found, only 27 percent of young Democrats reported the same.

The decrease in the number of young voters on Election Day may have also impacted the passage of contentious bills in states across the country. For example, in Calif., Proposition 19 – a provision to legalize marijuana – was defeated.  According to the L.A. Times, the majority of young voters (under 40) favored the bill’s passage. While polls showed decreasing support for the measure prior to Nov. 2, proponents hoped that the youth vote would save it at the polls.  Following the election, the Times reported, “The measure drew strong support from voters younger than 25, as the campaign had hoped, but those voters did not turn out in unusually high numbers, according to a state exit poll.”