After ushering in the 44th president of the United States two years ago -- voting Democrat 2-to-1 -- the youth vote is sitting this dance out. And that is a catastrophic loss to Democrats.
In 2008, young adults (18-to-29- year-olds) flooded to the polls, inspired by the message of hope and change from our first black president. It was the largest youth vote ever; they made up 17% of the electorate. This year rings a different tune. An October Gallup poll expects young adults to make up only 8% of the vote in 2010 -- less than half of what it was when Obama ran. That's quite a cliff dive, and with it so goes the donkeys.
Youth tends to vote Democrat. And even though young folks are less enthusiastic about the incumbents this year, they are still majority Democrat voters -- compared to the general public, according to a Pew Research poll.
The awing counter-factual here is that if youth showed up this election the way they did in 2010, then the Democrats would in all likelihood maintain control of the House. We wouldn't be talking about the importance of the Tea Party, because they wouldn't be winning. There would be no Republican upset; no referendum on this president.
That's just an hypothesis, of course. But the numbers do suggest that to be the case. And the Democrats have realized it, if only too late. In the last weeks before the election, Obama stepped up efforts to reach this demographic: scheduling a "youth town hall" on MTV, appearing with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, doing a Rolling Stone Interview -- and now -- in a last desperate attempt -- an interview with Ryan Seacrest on the morning of the election.
Pundits and lobbyists have tried to explain the disappearance of the youth vote. Obama didn't engage them soon enough. The Democrats let them down. They "tuned out" of politics, which seem dirty and ineffectual. These are all too familiar explanations.
Ultimately, the choice to vote is a simple calculation a voter asks himself: Is the benefit of my voting outweighed by the inconvenience of casting my ballot. Or, more simply: do I really think my vote will count this election season, because I'm going to be late to my spin class if I stop at the polling booth.
The fact that the youth is answering this question in the negative means they are either grossly overvaluing their time or grossly undervaluing their vote. Which is it?
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. On one hand, the youth believes their vote doesn't matter. Why do they think that? One only needs to watch 60 seconds of cable news to know that it does matter -- in dozens of tightly-contested races all over this country. But maybe they aren't watching cable news, or reading blogs, or seeing politics on their Facebook news feed. Or maybe all politicians have melded into some amorphous blob of ickiness that they'd rather not deal with.
Or maybe the Democrats have just done a lousy job at communicating what's at stake. If youth are moved by the candidates of big ideas (Obama, Clinton, Kennedy), then maybe the ideas weren't big enough this election season.
On the other hand, the youth may be overvaluing their time. Anyone who has been around young adults knows that they are pulled in a thousand different directions. (And all of them are extremely important, by the way.) The logistics to voting are a hassle. They move around a lot for school and jobs, they don't have permanent homes; and they're not plugged into their local communities. Most young adults don't even know the location of their local post office or fire station. Voting at the right time and place proves, well, challenging. (Luckily my parents forwarded me my absentee ballot.)
The youth vote gave Obama and the Democrats a unique opportunity to govern. But what the youth giveth, it also taketh away. Their no-show means a Republican House. And that will mean that life will be different, policy will be different and the future will be different.
What is all too clear is that if Democrats could ever unlock the power of the youth vote permanently, they'd be a near unstoppable force in the American legislature -- where they've had trouble maintaining control for most of modern history. And if the youth ever really voted when they were young, perhaps they'd have less to worry about when they got old.
These two partners may have missed each other this time around. But maybe with some dance lessons, 2012 can be different.