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.
2. Democrats have not done enough for young people. While there have been some important initiatives with regard to student loans, and while the federal stimulus bill did a lot to keep colleges open and affordable, there was never a sense that 18-to-29-year-olds were a central—or even prominent—concern of the Obama administration or the aging Democratic leadership in the House and Senate.
3. Even where Democrats did deliver—as on the student loan front—they did a lousy job of communicating about their accomplishments. Imagine Democrats failing to remind seniors of their work to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and you get the picture. Democrats also failed to develop a youth agenda that would have made a case to young people for getting to the polls and giving Obama's party the majorities it needed to advance meaningful legislation.
4. There are still problems with access to the polls for young people, especially those living in campus settings where local officials are frequently accused of erecting barriers to young voters. Champaign County's Shelden, a Republican, was accused of setting up an early-voting center in an area that was hard for students to reach. That was a common complaint around the country, and it is easier to blame physical and technical factors. But there is scant evidence that Democrats made themselves champions of youth voting. And if the Democrats won't fight for the right of young people to vote, they should not expect much in the way of 18-to-29-year-old turnout.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, that is precisely the vote they needed in 2010.
It is, as well, precisely the vote Barack Obama will need in 2012.
Of course, all turnout will be up in 2012.
Young people will vote at higher levels, and they will probably favor Democrats.
But the level of turnout and the enthusiasm for Obama and the Democrats could be definitional.
Neither the president, nor his party, can ignore the stark data from 2010 if they plan to compete in 2012.
"Since 2004, young voters have been one of the strongest Democratic constituencies," explains CIRCLE director Levine, who says that "Democrats need to engage them better than they did in 2010."
Right now, young people still lean Democratic. But Republicans, Levine says, have an opening to "make inroads in a generation that continues to prefer Democrats"—especially if Democrats continue to neglect them.