One key problem for the democrats in Tuesday’s election was that young voters stayed home.
Voters ages 18-29 made up 11% of the voters yesterday (according to exit polls); down almost 40% from the 18% of voters that youth comprised in 2008 and even below the 12 percent of the voters that youth comprised in the last mid-term election in 2006. It is this dropping out of younger voters while the older voters stayed engaged that E.J. Dionne calls “the enthusiasm gap.” Of course, while the concentration of 18-29 year olds among voters is important for what voices are heard in an election, these figures can be misleading — the percent youth comprise of the electorate can fall if there is especially high turnout among other age groups even if youth turnout stays constant.
Another way to examine this is youth turnout (what % of eligible voters voted). On this score, the 20.4% of eligible youth who turned out in 2010, was markedly lower than the 52% who voted in 2010. This is probably an unfair test, since turnout is always higher in presidential elections. But even compared with other mid-term elections, the 20.4% was a drop from the 23.5% of eligible 18-29 year-olds that voted in 2006 and a return to levels from 2002 or 1998. Another way of seeing this is that turnout among 18-29 year old citizens in presidential elections went from the high thirties in 2000 to 48% in 2008 (an increase of 10%); over roughly the same time period (including the latest dismal youth turnout numbers), youth turnout dropped a couple of percentage points or stayed flat from 1998 or 2002.
So much for the huge gains in youth turnout that we witnessed with election of Obama. And it raises some doubts about the trends Bob Putnam and I discussed in “Still Bowling Alone? The Post 9/11 Split“
How about youth’s very strong preference for democrats? Back in 2008, we were predicting that the youth being overwhelmingly democratic was going to cause the Republicans to be rightly scared for a long time since political loyalties once solidified are much harder to shake. Viewed two years later, it’s clear that many youth haven’t yet solidified their loyalties: youth 18-29 still voted democratic (with exit polls noting 56% of 18-29 year olds voting for House members voting demogratic, as opposed to 40% voting republican). But this 16 percentage point spread toward democrats was much smaller than the 38 percentage point gap toward democrats that 18-29 year-olds exhibited in the 2008 election (where youth preferred Obama over John McCain 68-30 percent); see 2008 map of 18-29 year old preference by state.
We reported earlier how the self-identification of young people 18-29 is also trending away from democrats.
Despite the lower turnout, young voters generally supported democratic candidates. If one looks at exit polls of votes for Governor in 2010 that had breakouts by age, there were 15 contests (AZ, AR, CA, CT, FL, IL, IA, NV, NH, NY, OH, PA, SC, TX,WI). In 12 of these, the youth vote broke democratic and in 8 of these states, youth supported the demographic candidate by 20 or more percentage points than youth support for the republican candidate.
Harold Meyerson points out that: Zero ” newly elected Republican senators in genuinely contested Senate races (excluding, therefore, those like North Dakota’s) …carried voters ages 18 to 29. Republicans may have picked up seats in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin and held them in Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio, but young voters in those states voted Democratic. Even in Ohio, where Republican Rob Portman beat Democrat Lee Fisher by 18 percentage points, Fisher won the youth vote 49 percent to 45 percent. In the national exit poll on House voting, the Republicans lost the 18-to-29-year-olds by 17 points, and did better the older the voters got.” (“Election by the Numbers“, Washington Post, 11/5/10)
But in summary, these two trends: youth nationwide identifying less as Democrats and youth exercising their rights at the ballot box less are both undermining the attention that politicians pay to youth voters and their issues and helping to shift the electoral map towards Republicans. Obama and Democrats have to hope that they can still recapture some of the youth 2008 enthusiasm both for democrats and voting.
And if youth are going to fulfill the civic promise that they showed in 2008, they are going to have to exhibit more consistent political interest and enthusiasm to get their vote heard and make our country strong.