Disillusioned Young Voters May Hold Key to Midterms
Policy + Politics

Disillusioned Young Voters May Hold Key to Midterms

Lauren Anderson, a 21-year-old senior at American University in Washington, D.C., believed she and her friends were helping to make history in 2008 when they turned out to elect Barack Obama, the first African-American president. But this year the thrill is gone. Anderson, who is from an affluent suburb of Buffalo, moans that “Congress stresses me out,” and she’s not sure she will vote in this year’s midterm election.

She knows that time is running out to get her absentee ballot and so far she hasn’t applied. She was disappointed when Congress postponed discussion of the Bush tax cuts and isn’t optimistic about action after the election. “It’s hard not to be cynical,” she says.

Anderson, like many other young people, may sit out the election, posing a serious challenge for Democrats as they desperately try to retain power this year. Much has been made of the “enthusiasm” gap between Republicans and Democrats, and nowhere is that reflected more than in the differences between the oldest and youngest Americans.

A CBSNews/New York Times poll conducted in mid-September found that only half the 18-29 year olds are registered to vote and just 55 percent of them say they will definitely vote in 2010. Moreover, a mere 15 percent of young people say they are paying “a lot of attention” to the election. By comparison, 84 percent of voters over 64 say they will definitely vote, and 50 percent say they are paying a lot of attention to the election.

Whereas young people favor Democrats by as much as 10 to 20 percentage points in most polls, among seniors, the most reliable of voters, Republicans hold an 11 point advantage over the Democrats. Annette Buckley, a retired 77-year-old Republican from Bradenton, Florida, says she is fired up to vote against the Democrats next month because she strongly opposes the health care reform law that Obama and the Democrats pushed through. “It is disgusting,” she said. “It was pushed through without even reading it.” Buckley said three doctors have told her they are going to retire because they fear the impact of health care reform, especially on Medicare payments. 

Because of their strong track record of voting in off-year elections and their particular interest in the elections this year, seniors have been the target of heavy campaigning by both parties. Buckley says she isn’t sure that Republicans could repeal the health care law even if they regain control of the House and Senate, but she says a politically mixed Congress would help slow down the damage. “It can get much worse than this,” she says.

Recent polling by Gallup and others has shown President Obama’s job approval rating slipping to the mid-50s with young people, although the young remain his strongest supporters. The CBS /New York Times poll found that young people are not as positive about Congress and that only 22 percent say their own member of Congress deserves re-election. And while they generally like Democrats more than Republicans, 67 percent believe that a third party is needed to compete with both of them.

President Obama attempted last week to reignite the magic of 2008 with a rally at the University of Wisconsin, where he once again filled the Library Mall with more than 26,000 enthusiastic supporters, “The biggest mistake we can make right now is to let disappointment lead to apathy,” Obama told the roaring crowd. “I am promising you Wisconsin, change is going to come. You’ve got to stick with me. You can't lose hope.” He's also planning to host a town hall on MTV.

Many Democratic strategists believe that the only way to stem the Republican tide in 2010 is to get their liberal base out to the polls. “I don’t think [Democrats] can change the mood,” says Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster on the NBC News/WSJ poll team, “but they can change the turnout. Democrats … can be competitive … by turning out those who are least likely to show for an off-year election. This means getting minorities, young people, women, and the working class to make their voices heard.”

While a new NBC/Wall Street Journal  poll suggests that that African Americans and Hispanics are starting to get engaged, most young people are still not showing much interest. But there are differing views within the Democratic Party over how far to go in attracting young voters. At a Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Finance Council retreat a week ago in Bedford Springs, Pa., 76-year-old Michigan Sen. Carl Levin questioned the wisdom of Jon Stewart’s scheduled October 30th “Return to Sanity” rally and using humor when people are out of work and fearing economic collapse. Democratic Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, 71, called comedian Steven Colbert’s recent appearance before a House subcommittee to discuss immigration “inappropriate” and “an embarrassment.”

The differing mindsets of the under 30s and the seniors come through on a number of issues in the recent CBS/ New York Times poll. By 65 percent to 27 percent, young people say they prefer big government with a lot of services while seniors favor small government 58 percent to 29 percent. About half of the young people believe Obama has a clear plan to fix the economy compared to barely 30 percent of the seniors, and while neither group is enamored with the way things are going in Washington. Forty-three percent of young people say they are satisfied compared to only a quarter of seniors. And of the 70 percent of seniors who are dissatisfied, 24 percent describe themselves as “angry” compared to 11 percent of 18-29 year olds. 

Anderson says she is “very liberal on social issues, moderate on fiscal issues” and if she votes absentee she may vote Democratic. She says she still has “a lot of respect for President Obama” and “if he gave a good reason to vote for a specific candidate and not just every Democrat, I would take that very seriously.” But she says she doesn’t have any idea who the candidates are in New York or what they stand for, in part because she’s living away from home.

What it will take to rally the young is still an open question. Meanwhile, Mrs. Buckley says she will cast an early ballot in Florida.