NEW DATA: Young Voters Battle Cynicism, But Still Plan to Participate in 2010

09/15/2010 05:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's not 2008. There's no presidential race to unite the country's focus and galvanize sweeping momentum. If you asked a young person how he or she feels heading into the midterm elections, you'd probably still hear the traces of optimism that characterized that historic election. This time, however, the response would also have a trace of cynicism. You'd hear frustration -- if sometimes unreasonable -- about the pace of change over the last two years. But you'd also hear conviction that 2010 is a new opportunity to prove that young people remain deeply invested and committed to shaping the future they'll inherit.

Today Rock the Vote released the results of a poll that details where this crucial bloc of voters ages 18 to 29 stands on many important factors, such as young voters attitudes towards Congress and national leaders like President Obama and Sarah Palin, and their interest in the upcoming election. It also looks at their political affiliations and positions on critical issues that will be debated during the 2010 midterm election cycle, such as the war in Afghanistan, marriage rights, energy policy, sexual health education and immigration.

What we found is that young voters are tired of politics as usual, and this sentiment gives them all the more reason to vote on Nov. 2nd. About 77% say they plan to vote, and when they do show up at the polls, they say they want to vote for candidates who stick to substance rather than preaching partisanship. Our data shows that young people care much more about jobs and college affordability than a candidate's party affiliation. They are waiting for candidates to address their issues, and are becoming increasingly frustrated with those who don't.

In pursuit of the change they voted for in 2008, we saw that while Millennials remain confident in their ability to make an impact, they are struggling to work past doubts about the political process. An overwhelming majority (83%) still says they believe their generation has the power to change our country, yet 59% say they feel more cynical about politics than they did two years ago.

The shift in young people's attitudes are reflected in their views on current leaders. President Obama (56%) and the Democratic Party (46%) still receive the highest marks, with the Republican Party (36%) trailing behind. Favorability ratings indicate that President Obama (56%) and the Democratic Party (46%) still receive the highest marks, with the Republican Party (36%) trailing behind. Sarah Palin (28%) and the Tea Party (26%) receive lower favorability ratings. In terms of endorsements that will impact midterm outcomes, President Obama is more of an asset to candidates looking to energize young voters than Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Half of young people say they are more likely to support a candidate endorsed by President Obama, while only 26% say the same about Sarah Palin (64% less likely) or the Tea Party (54% less likely).

Beyond the candidates are the issues at stake. Young people say they are more likely to back a candidate for U.S. Congress who supports investing in new technology to create jobs, seeks to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and will provide leadership on key social issues like immigration, marriage rights and sexual health education. For more specific statistics from the poll, visit our research page.

In these upcoming midterm elections, the better question is not "Will young people turn out?" but rather "Will candidates pay attention to the issues of young people?"

Observers from both parties interpreted the data to be an opportunity for candidates to connect with young people.

"This data makes clear that there is real value for Republican candidates to target voters under age 30," says conservative pollster Brian Nienaber, vice president of The Tarrance Group:

These voters have an improving image of the Republican Party. In addition, the top concerns of these voters are the same pocketbook issues that are the focus of nearly every Republican candidate in the country. Thoughtful messaging and appropriate targeting could yield a significant level of support with these voters.

Says progressive pollster John Anzalone:

In past election cycles we've heard about soccer moms and NASCAR dads, but in this cycle Democrats would be wise to target young people. Since moderates and independents are leaning Republican going into the November midterms, Democrats should appeal once again to the young people ages 18 to 29, who have not given up on them since the 2008 election. For all the criticisms that they don't vote, this does show they are willing to engage when we go out and get them. Candidates who neglect young people are taking a major risk, as they will be the swing group for either party in 2010.

Young people may be more cynical this election cycle, but they are also now even more experienced. If candidates treat them like the sophisticated, energized voting bloc they truly are and address their issues, they will deliver.