Twice a year for a decade, John Della Volpe has surveyed thousands of university students across America about their engagement in politics. Lately, he has noticed a striking change.
When he began the survey in 2000, says Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, young people were tuned out. “In 2000 and early 2001, they didn’t vote and weren’t participating because, they told us, politics and government didn’t matter. To make a difference, they told us you had to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself,” he recalls. September 11 and the Iraq war changed all that. Suddenly, the issues were on a greater scale, and the differences between the administration of George W. Bush and the Democrats were often stark. For nearly a decade, the youth vote increased in every federal contest over the previous comparable election.
“Perhaps the only silver lining to 9/11 was that it awoke the political spirit of this generation,” says Volpe. And it mattered. In the 2008 presidential election, more voters were under 30 (18 per cent) than were over 65 (16 per cent). The so-called millennials—sons and daughters of the baby boomers—still don’t turn out to vote proportionally as frequently as older people—but there are enough of them to make an increasing impact.
One candidate who saw the potential of the latent youth vote was Barack Obama. His campaign worked hard to overcome traditional obstacles to getting young people to the polls—by getting absentee ballots to campuses, reaching first-time voters through text messages and online strategies, and harnessing their enthusiasm.
And it worked. First, in the early state of Iowa, swarms of energized young people helped push Obama to victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination: 57 per cent of voters under 30 backed him, while Clinton got the votes of just 11 per cent. In the general election, Obama won 66 per cent of the youth vote against Republican John McCain, creating the biggest vote disparity between the age groups since exit polling started. (John Kerry had garnered 55 per cent in 2004 against George W. Bush.)
Once in office, Obama did deliver some policy victories for young people. He persuaded Congress to increase funding for federal financial aid for university students, known as Pell Grants. His health reform law includes a popular provision that allows young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until age 26.
But after Obama took office, young people’s interest in politics waned, in part due to disillusionment with the President himself. With the economy stagnating, his approval dropped like a stone among all age groups. Young workers face some of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. The poor jobs situation is leading some to postpone buying homes, marriage and starting families, and leading others to question the value of incurring debt to pay for higher education. And the rise in partisan standoffs and bitterness has led voters of all ages, especially young voters, to despair at the state of politics.
Anger at Wall Street bailouts and the continuation of Bush-like policies in the war against al-Qaeda is fuelling a return to a “no difference between the parties” mindset. In the 2010 congressional elections, for the first time in a decade, youth participation dropped. Volpe says his surveys find a change in attitudes among twentysomethings. “They are now questioning again the efficacy of their vote on the political process and the importance of the political parties,” says Volpe. “I think they are potentially back to the days of 2000.”
The question is whether young voters will come back in 2012. And if they don’t, where does that leave Obama? It’s unlikely that the Republicans will win the youth vote. Polls suggest that young people still favour Obama by a double-digit lead over a generic Republican candidate. But the bigger threat to the President is not that young people will switch sides and vote for the other guy—it’s that fewer young people who voted for him in 2008 will show up at the polls. “I don’t think the Republican nominee needs to win a majority of the youth vote to become president. If he can just dial Obama’s support [among young voters] back down to the mid-50s, the election is going to be a toss-up again,” says Volpe.
Republicans hope that will turn out to be the case. The College Republican National Committee has launched online ads focusing on the party’s signature issue of the mounting national debt. One ad, titled “I am debt,” has young people writing letters to their parents, explaining, “By the time I am your age, my share of the national debt will be $279,000.” Another has young people mocking their own infatuation with Obama like a romance gone sour. One young woman complains, “He had me at ‘hope and change.’ ”
Chrissy Faessen, a spokeswoman for Rock the Vote, a non-partisan organization focused on registering young people to vote, says it’s too early to tell whether youth participation will be up or down. “In 2008, there was this message of hope and change—and now four years later, when they didn’t see the change, they are frustrated and trying to figure out how to navigate the situation,” she says. In addition, youth turnout may be suppressed by new logistical obstacles in 2012. More than 30 states have changed their voting laws to tighten rules around voter identification and cut back on early voting, a move that a new report from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice says will make it “significantly harder” for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012. The rules will affect young voters disproportionately because they are less likely to possess the kind of government-issued IDs that will be necessary to vote.
Rock the Vote is employing a variety of strategies to educate young voters and help them register to vote, including busing young voters in some states to the local Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain the necessary ID. “Student IDs won’t work, and if we don’t figure out how to better educate these voters, that will have a big effect on our turnouts,” says Faessen. Rock the Vote will register voters on campuses, at music festivals and concerts, and use celebrities and performing artists to encourage them to vote, she said.
On the other hand, there are indications that young people are taking an interest in politics again. Faessen points to the Occupy movement as a sign that young people are not tuning out. Instead they are camping out in places like Wall Street—but will they turn out to vote? So far, that’s not exactly clear. Not far from the White House are some 70 tents set up at Washington’s McPherson Square, where a mix of young and old activists have been camping out to protest corporate influence in politics, joblessness, environmental causes and other issues of the sort that once animated the Obama campaign. Political attitudes at the camp are mixed.
David Givens, a 26-year-old who travelled from his home in rural south-central Kentucky to join the camp, dropped out of university with a year left in a sociology degree because he didn’t see any prospect for a job. He has worked as a seasonal labourer, harvesting tobacco and nuts and tending gardens. Givens says he voted for Obama in 2008—but won’t do so again. “I felt betrayed,” he says, sitting on a curb alongside the encampment. “A lot of us were hoping to see more clear-cut changes coming to Washington. I have at this point completely written off politics.” Democrats won’t win his vote by arguing that the other side is worse, he insists. “At this point, having to choose between the lesser of two evils is no choice at all,” he explains. “I can’t choose between two candidates who support the same ideology.”
Not all demonstrators agree. Steven Safak, a 20-year-old from Baltimore who studies clinical mental health at the University of Maryland, says he worries about the “systematic dissolving of the middle class” and the role of corporations in politics. He wants the Occupy movement to remain non-partisan and would not say whom he’d vote for. But he does plan to cast a vote in 2012. “It’s important to protect a right by using it—that goes both for voting and protesting,” Safak explains. “One person voting is more powerful than 10 people protesting.”