Election enthusiasts who've been gleefully gossiping for months about the narratives that will frame November's midterm contests got their first substantive taste of the season this week, sparking a predictable, if misguided, assault on the young voters who defined the country's historic engagement levels in 2008.
The DNC released a video featuring President Obama's core strategy: He will attempt to re-engage the young people who voted for the first time two years ago. This came on the heels of the release of a Gallup poll with the headline, "Young Voters Less Enthusiastic About Voting This Year."
Responses ranged from excited young people updating their Facebook statuses, to strategists and pundits on the right and left questioning the bankability of this demographic, to full-blown rants against the government and media.
Everyone has an opinion about whether young people will make a significant impact this fall, but if you look at the data it's clear that the 18- to 29-year-old cohort, which turned out 22.4 million voters in 2008, continues to be poised to produce results.
Consider the Gallup poll, which notes that 47 percent of young people say they are "not enthusiastic" about voting in the midterm election. Meanwhile, 23 percent say that are "very excited" to vote, along with another 28 percent who are "somewhat excited," for a combined majority of 51 percent.
When I view these statistics, especially knowing that for the past seven election cycles national turnout for midterms has averaged 15 points lower* than the preceding presidential election, I see a core group of Millennial thought-leaders who - six months out from hitting the ballot boxes - are politically aware and indicating at least a baseline level of enthusiasm for participating. Given that this group of leaders was also responsible in 2008 for the most scalable, technologically-advanced, voter registration and GOTV efforts in history within their peer-to-peer digital networks, it's highly likely that their friends lingering unenthusiastically in Gallup's 47 percent category will once again get tapped by the civic momentum they observe within their online and offline circles as Nov. 2 draws nearer.
Savvy campaign field directors will recognize that they are dealing with a generation that is a permanent and influential part of the electorate. By 2012, Millennials will represent 24 percent of the voting age population, and 36 percent by 2020**. Under-serving this growing constituency in the aftermath of their extraordinary engagement in 2008 would not only yield short-term consequences for Congressional leaders this fall and would-be Presidential candidates in 2012, it would be a wasted opportunity to develop the growing engagement of our country's largest generation as well as the digital mobilization strategies that will undoubtedly alter our long-term political landscape.
Those who apply lessons learned from 2008 and invest early in this voting bloc will reap the benefits at the ballot box. To do so, they will need to deliver on issues that matter to young voters today, as well as target them to turnout in November.
Young voters will, in particular, be watching to see whether the economy improves. The recession has hit this age group particularly hard: A Pew survey in 2006 showed half of all 18-29 year olds employed in full-time jobs. The survey in 2010 showed only 41% employed - a decline of 9 points. Other age groups stayed at consistent employment rates.
Likewise, Congress has much to prove to America's young people: They don't approve of Democrats in Congress (42 percent to 54 percent) and have even less approval of Republicans in Congress (32 percent to 64 percent)***.
As political aficionados get back on the trail and begin using selective math to tell various and conflicting stories about the role young voters will play in the midterm elections, we must rely on common sense and lessons learned in 2008 to stay focused on reality. Young voters, like most Americans, still anticipate six months of governing in which candidates from all affiliations will need to prove that they really are delivering results on the change the country was promised.
*US Census & "The Youth Vote in 20008" updated August 17, 2009, Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement
** 21st Centry America Project; March 2010 National Poll Summary.
*** IOP = Harvard Institute of Politics Survey - Spring 2010.
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