In an increasingly unpredictable midterm election cycle, young voter turnout could make a difference in highly contested races around the country. With President Obama on the campaign trail and new efforts to reach targeted demographic groups including millennials, there is still time to turn out the vote among key Democratic constituencies. But it will not be easy. Young voters are still not inclined to head to the polls.
According to a recent CBS/Knowledge Networks poll, 85% of Obama voters under 30 approve of the president's job performance, but only 44% say they are definitely voting this election cycle. The Harvard's Institute of Politics poll released this week had similar findings, echoing concerns that young people are not sufficiently motivated to vote this year. A September Rock the Vote poll showed only 34% of young adults expressed a desire for Democrats to retain control of Congress while 36% stated it did not matter whether Democrats or Republicans took control.
Voter turnout in midterm elections, especially among new and younger voters, is generally expected to be lower than presidential election years, but trend data point to increasing participation of young adults in midterm elections. Following 2004, the year with the largest increase in young voter turnout since 1972, 10.8 million adults ages 18-29 voted in 2006--2 million more than 2002.
Also working in the Democrats' favor is the nearly one-third of nonwhite millennials who overwhelming voted for President Obama. Their affinity for the president and the prospect of a Republican-led Congress committed to obstructing Obama's agenda could bring more blacks and young people to the polls than expected.
According to a recent Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report, in 1986 and 1998 black voters minimized midterm Democratic losses. In 1998, for example, President Clinton, much like Obama in 2010, enjoyed a high approval rating among African Americans. "That year, blacks were strategically placed relative to the competitive races, and they turned out in a strong showing of support for President Clinton," writes David Bositis, author of the report. In 2010, there are 20 House and 14 Senate races where blacks could potentially decide the outcome.
Much of turning out the black and youth vote will depend on the ground game. Democrats' recent efforts to engage black voters appear to be paying off, but there remains an enthusiasm gap among young adults overall.
Earlier in the year, it became increasingly clear that millennials were feeling disenchanted with the administration and growing cynical about the political process and prospects for meaningful change.
Adding to their loss of enthusiasm is the tendency to feel used, as the head of Rock the Vote states in this CSPAN interview, a sentiment I've heard expressed from both young and black voters alike.
New and young voters need to be continually engaged in the process, not just during election season. In the final stretch to election day, Democrats not only have to present a clear choice between themselves and Republicans, they will also have to acknowledge that they can do better listening and connecting with base voters moving forward.
The past few weeks have proven that the president and first lady can still draw enthusiastic crowds. But for millennials, translating that energy into votes may need to include a promise that this won't be the last call they'll receive from party leaders before 2012.