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Energizing Millennials: Key to 2010 Democratic Victory

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The latest unemployment numbers and poll results have led most observers to predict a major setback for Democrats in the 2010 Congressional elections. But a year is a lifetime in politics and much can change between now and then to influence next year's vote. As Ron Brownstein recently pointed out, the demographic makeup of the electorate is likely to be a key factor in whether or not the Democrats can maintain their current majority margins in 2010. While traditionally Democrats have focused on turning out African-American and Hispanic voters to offset Republican strength among white male voters that equation is no longer the only calculation Democratic strategists need to make.

Today the level and intensity of interest among Millennials young voters 18-28, is equally important in ensuring Democratic victories. But for that group of voters to turn out in large numbers, Congressional Democrats will have to make a much more concerted effort than they have to date to deliver on a series of policy issues of major concern to Millennials, the generation that provided Barack Obama 80% of his popular vote margin over John McCain in 2008.

As with most other Americans, the number one concern among Millennials is the state of the economy and the need for jobs. But Millennials have a unique perspective on this issue, one that Congress must understand and address.  Millennials believe there is a clear link between education and employment and are increasingly concerned that the pathway through the educational system into the world of work is becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive to navigate. Two-thirds of Millennials who graduate from a four-year college do so with over $20,000 in debt.   A job market with Depression-level youth unemployment (18.5%) and a wrenching transformation of the types of jobs America needs and produces makes the implicit bargain of education in return for future economic success harder for Millennials to believe in every day.

Recently Matt Segal, Executive Director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) and Founder and National Co-Chair of the "80 Million Strong for Young Americans Job Coalition" presented some ideas to the House Education and Labor Committee on what Congress could do to address this challenge.  He advocated increased entrepreneurial resources be made available to youth; Senate action on the student debt reform bill recently passed by the House; more access to public service careers through   internships and loan forgiveness programs; and the creation of "mission critical" jobs in such fields as health care, cyber-security and the environment that would tap the unique talents of this generation. Coupled with the recent passage of the Kennedy Serve America Act, enacting these initiatives would demonstrate that Democrats are serious about improving the economic situation of Millennials and, at the same time, provide organizing ammunition in the 2010 campaign.

Of course no economic program can ignore the impact of health care on this generation's-and America's-economic well being. Many of the entry-level jobs young people seek and obtain come from employers who simply can't afford to provide health care coverage under today's system. Young adults between the ages of 19 and 29 represent nearly a third of all uninsured Americans, and two-thirds of those uninsured young people reported going without necessary medical care in 2007 because they could not afford to pay for it.

As a result, polling has consistently indicated that a majority of young people support President Obama's health care proposal, especially if it contains a public option to control costs.  One of the more compelling components of the president's plan for Millennials is that it would allow parents to cover their children through the family's health insurance up to the age of 26 instead of the current limit of 19.  And Millennials expect Congress to act. Only a third of Millennials, as compared with half of older generations, are concerned that the government will become too involved in health care.

Yet many pundits continue to perceive health care reform as an "old people's issue," likely to increase the turnout of seniors, but not Millennials, in the 2010 elections. Some have even suggested that Millennials will object to a health care system that limits the differential in premiums insurance companies can charge relatively healthy young people vs. older, less well adults. But this theoretical inter-generational transfer of wealth is not likely to stir up much opposition among Millennials.   Unlike the Baby Boomers of four decades ago, Millennials do not speak to their elders across a generation gap, but have actually formed strong and enduring bonds with their parents and come to the public arena determined to find solutions that work for people of all ages.  Already, Young Americans for Health Care Reform has accumulated 1200 fans on Facebook since the group was formed less than a month ago.   If Congressional Democrats can successfully negotiate passage of a health care reform bill that provides cost-effective coverage for the 30% of Millennials who currently are not insured, Democrats will have another major arrow in their quiver going into the 2010 election.

Millennials, like their GI Generation great grandparents in the 1930s, are facing economic challenges that caught them by surprise and for which no one prepared them.  But Millennials aren't looking for a handout or sympathy. Instead, in the "can do" spirit of their generation, they are organizing to overcome the challenges created for them by their elders.  It's time for Democrats in Congress to recognize these concerns and the loyalty of a generation that identifies as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin.   One way to accomplish this is by passing meaningful health care reform while helping to create new pathways to economic opportunity, especially for young people who are just entering the work force. Doing so now, as the battle for 2010 shapes up, will help energize the newest and most loyal element of the Democratic Party's 21st Century coalition, the Millennial Generation.

Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.