Everyone knows that young voters were less enthused about the 2010 midterm elections than they were about the 2008 presidential election, when their votes powered Barack Obama to a landslide victory and gave Democrats big boosts in Congressional contests. But detailed studies of the election reveal that the decline in voting by Americans aged 18 to 29 was actually more serious than initially imagined.
In 2008, polls showed that young people were overwhelmingly supportive of Obama and the Democrats. And they turned out in droves. According to the research group CIRCLE—The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement—which tracks civic engagement among young voters, 51 percent of 18- to-19-year-olds voted that year.
In 2010, polls showed that young people were still supportive of Obama and the Democrats. But only 20.9 percent of them bothered to vote.
CIRCLE director Peter Levine said, "For liberal students, this election felt, at best, as a defensive move, protecting a Congress they don’t like that much."
That cost Democrats Senate and House seats across the country. And the down-ballot losses were even more significant, as close contests for legislative and local races tipped to the Republicans after young people failed to show.
The Circle study suggests that turnout among young voters in 2010 was down almost 10 percent from the last midterm election year, 2006, when Obama was not even on the ballot.
Those numbers are significantly worse than initial exit polling suggested.
And the picture on ground is even darker.
In Champaign County, Illinois, home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the ten precincts identified by local election officials as "entirely campus" turned out 7,535 votes in 2008. This year, according to a survey by the Politico, the figure fell to 2,615. That’s represent’s a 65 percent drop in turnout in precincts were young voters make up most of the electorate.
Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk easily won Champaign County, as he did a number of other parts of the state where campus turnout collapsed. Overall, in Illinois, 54 percent of voters over 30 cast ballots November 2, while just 23 percent of voters under 30 did so. That’s no small matter when we recall that Kirk won by just 65,000 votes statewide.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden says: "Virtually everything that drove college kids to turn out for Obama kind of got ignored."
Democrats simply did not get campus voters excited enough to go to the polls—even for a young Democratic Senate candidate with close ties to Obama, Alexi Giannoulias. The situation was similar across the country, and a Politico review of races across the country suggests it cost the party House seats in New York, Ohio, Virginia and other states.
What’s the problem?
1. Getting young voters to the polls is about more than the candidate. Some of the youngest and most tech-savvy Democratic contenders in 2010 lost. And that’s a fact that President Obama ought to note as he prepares for a difficult 2012 reelection campaign. While Obama was on the winning side of the enthusiasm gap in 2008, he may not be there in 2010.