Framing of the Youth Vote (or Lack Thereof) In November

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Well, here we go again.

The New York Times published a story today out of Colorado looking at whether or not young voters could be turning away from the Democratic ranks — two years after serving as one of the bedrock groups in Obama’s voting coalition. The story seems to be fairly balanced in its views, as there are some younger voters proclaiming their continued allegiance to the President and the Democratic Party, but there are also young voters souring on the Democratic leadership.

One young voter was particularly descriptive in explaining her conflicted views.

Kristin Johnson, 23, like many other students interviewed here in recent days, said that a vote for Democrats in 2008, however passionate it was, did not a Democrat make. But she bristles just as much at the idea of being called a Republican.

“It’s like picking a team when you really don’t want to root for either team,” said Ms. Johnson, a communication studies major, who said she was undecided about parties and politics going into the general election campaign.

If Democrats are letting voters like Ms. Johnson get away from them across the country, the ramifications of this blunder will be felt for a long, long time. But that’s another topic for another day.

I wanted to focus on another passage from the article, one that reflects exactly what we have been facing throughout the last few special elections and what we will be fighting back through November and beyond.

How and whether millions of college students vote will help determine if Republicans win enough seats to retake the House or Senate, overturning the balance of power on Capitol Hill, and with it, Mr. Obama’s agenda. If students tune out and stay home it will also carry a profound message for American society about a generation that seemed so ready, so recently, to grab national politics by the lapels and shake.

While Kirk Johnson, the writer of this piece, does not go into specifics as far as what he means by a “profound message,” I think the odds are good that these few lines illuminate the common misunderstanding that Johnson and other journalists run with when writing these stories. They go with the surface level content, mindlessly reporting that youth did not show up at the polls and, thus, are not interested in voting. Apparently, we’re just not prepared.

But what about the other possibility: perhaps youth, suckered into this idea that politicians – maybe just once – might care about our issues, might be willing to talk big, think big, dream big, and for once exercise some pragmatic idealism, are let down. After being counted on to move this Democratic administration and congressional leadership into power, perhaps we are pissed off and making a political statement by refusing to be taken for granted.

That’s where this article falls short. There are other possibilities for why youth might not be voting. Not because we are apathetic, or turned off to politics. It’s because politicians gave us their word, we gave them our vote, and aside from a watered down health care bill, a stimulus that was too small, and maybe a few other bills, the work hasn’t been done, and the to-do list is getting longer. Furthermore, we are left hanging in the breeze, waiting for an honest explanation… still.. waiting.. for that honest explanation.

So don’t get us wrong: we’re still ready to shake some lapels. But in order to be most effective, we need candidates who are uncompromising in their tenacity on confronting big issues, but flexible in crafting solutions to our problems. And we need them to engage us.

Underestimating the Impact of the Youth Vote

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Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates, Executive Director of the Washington Bus and Vice President for Civic Engagement at Rock the Vote respectively, penned an op-ed published in today’s Seattle Times.  Goldstein and Bates took aim at the idea that youth’s “low” turnout in midterm elections relative to older age groups ultimately means a smaller impact on the results.

It isn’t exactly news that young people tend to vote at lower rates than older voters. The more interesting story is that even if young people turn out at lower rates, they can dramatically affect the election landscape and outcomes. That happened most visibly in the 2008 presidential election, but also in certain nonpresidential elections closer to home.

The approval of Referendum 71, the election of a young mayor in Tacoma, and two victorious young City Council candidates in Spokane are all evidence of the efficacy of targeting young voters. Moreover, the highest turnout in the state in 2009 was in the 43rd Legislative District, which has the greatest concentration of young voters.

Even with mounting evidence, too many campaigns write off young voters, and this tired habit has made the prophecy of low turnout a self-fulfilling one. It almost reads as a new definition of madness: Time and time again, campaigns don’t invest time and resources into young people, and then are surprised when they don’t mail in their ballots.

[…]

Luckily, we’re doing something about it. Forward-looking organizations and campaigns have tested methods to engage young people and have committed resources to make them reliable voters. And we’re seeing results: For the past three major election cycles — yes, even pre-Obama — the turnout of young people has steadily increased.

We know what works: Make sure young people are registered to vote, give them relevant information in an engaging way, and run campaigns that connect with their values.

The point both are making is that, blessed with size, the effect of even a subtle increase in the Millennial voting rate can be worth a few points in various midterm elections — enough to tip those races in different directions.

As we move forward into the meat of the 21st Century, these younger people, increasingly becoming adults, are going to need to be pursued in a different way than past voters.  This calls for aggressive engagement, complete with the “relevant information” Goldstein and Gates mention above, as well as managing campaigns that reflect youth’s values.

Re-Attracting Young Voters Back to the Obama Coalition

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Matt Bai’s piece in the New York Times Magazine chronicles the emerging tensions between the White House and the Congress as they strategize for the 2010 mid-terms. Within the piece, Bai discusses the generational dynamic at play as the DNC (what is now the Obama-backed OFA) is pushing congressional candidates (against their wills) to make their pitches to voters normally perceived as unreliable.

…The lesson that Plouffe and his operation took away from the dismal 2009 elections is that Obama can act like a matchmaker of sorts, introducing the party’s candidates to new voters and vouching for their intentions, but it’s only going to matter if the candidates themselves embrace the so-called new politics. What that means, practically speaking, is that the White House is urging candidates to divert a fair amount of their time and money — traditionally used for buying TV ads and rallying core constituencies — to courting volunteers and voters who haven’t generally been reliable Democrats.

This is not what members of Congress or their campaign managers are trained to do, and it has created something of a cultural chasm between the White House and the party apparatus. There is a strong generational component here. With some exceptions, Obama’s passion for organizing finds more enthusiasm among candidates closer to the president’s age and newer to politics (candidates like Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado), while older Democrats have a harder time imagining that a bunch of volunteers and a dozen virtual town-hall meetings are going to matter more than labor endorsements and some killer 30-second spots…

[…]

By Democratic Party standards, this is a relatively muted internal disagreement. But it nonetheless points to the emergence of rival schools of thought within the party when it comes to Obama’s importance as a party leader. Some see him as having transformed both the electorate and the nature of campaigning in what could be a lasting and fundamental way, meaning that things are possible now — both in terms of liberal governance and winning elections — that did not seem possible before. Others view 2008 mostly as a cathartic election that had more to do with conditions in the country than with Obama’s peculiar magic, and they don’t think the party should assume that there are millions of new voters out there who can be tapped if you just knock on the right doors. These two worldviews coexist uneasily among the party’s elected officials and candidates, young and old, in every part of the country — sometimes just hours apart.

The congressional camp within the Democratic Party reflects the status quo that continues to claim that new voters — including young voters — don’t vote and are apathetic. What they refuse to understand is that we are civically active; we do vote when we are genuinely engaged in a conversation about issues through a medium relevant to our lifestyles. These labor endorsements and “killer” television ads are almost as boring as network news these days. Instead, we should be investing in the peer-to-peer voting drives and organizing work that have already increased the youth vote for three straight elections. From Mike Connery’s Journalist Cheat Sheet:

Tip #5: If you insist on reporting the same old story that young people vote at a lower rate than the rest of the electorate, then you have an obligation to also inform your readers/viewers/listeners that youth turnout has increased for 3 years straight, and is at its highest level in over a decade. You also have an obligation to note that in 2006 the youth vote swung a number of important federal races, including pushing Democratic candidates Jon Tester, Jim Webb, and Joe Courtney over the top.

Source: Historical voting patterns (pdf), Impact on Races (pdf), Midterm Turnout (pdf).

Tip #6: If you are going to report on low-turnout among young voters, you also have an obligation to note that young people face more barriers to voting than do older voters. We move more frequently, requiring us to re-register sometimes on a yearly basis, on campus we face a lack of voting machines and long lines, and many university towns actively discourage and try to prevent students from voting.

Source: League of Conservation Voters Education Fund

Tip #7: There are simple fixes to the problems outlined in #6 – election day and same-day registration and mail-in voting are two such fixes that can be applied at the state level. These have been proven to bump youth turnout by as much as 14%!!!!! It would be nice if you reported on them occasionally.

Source: CIRCLE

Tip #8: Young voters will participate if they are asked to, particularly by a peer. This is proven. But the system stopped asking long ago by removing resources and manpower away from young voter outreach. Only in recent years have organizations – and a few campaigns – begin to reengage young voters in any serious way. The result is three straight years in which youth turnout increased. In plain terms: young voters are not apathetic. Rather, the system fails to engage them in any meaningful way.

Source: Young Voter Strategies, Voter Mobilization Tactics

Tip #9: Stop reporting on “celebrity activism” as the Rosetta Stone for understanding the youth vote. This is a Boomer and Gen-X construction created for a broadcast TV culture of the 80s and 90s. Today’s young voters are interested in peer-to-peer communication and networked action. From Facebook to on the ground, peer to peer organizing at club, bars, barbershops and apartment canvassing, the most effective, and sustainable developments in youth organizing in the past five years have come from new, grassroots organizations doing peer to peer organizing on the ground or online. Stop reporting on celebrities and start doing the work of talking to and reporting on the activities of these organizations. Good places to start include:

Forward Montana, The Oregon Bus Project, New Era Colorado, Young Democrats of America, and The League of Young Voters.

There are many more, but let’s do this in baby steps. Start with these and we’ll work out way deeper into youth organizing together.

Young voters can be courted; it just takes some courage and genuine effort. The Speaker’s office and legislators like Congressman George Miller (D-CA) have been great on youth policy issues, but in purely electoral terms, the Congressional campaign plan outlined above is disappointing. While OFA doesn’t have a pristine record with young voters, they apparently get it more than many of the old guard congressmen and congresswomen.

Conservative National Debt Argument Not Effective with Youth

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Brandon Griefe at U.S. News and World Report wrote a piece yesterday arguing that the Republicans have an opportunity to make amends with young, Millennial voters given the “genuine fear” created by Democratic spending.

With such a large and active base of young supporters it would appear Democrats have their Republican opponents nearing checkmate. But a closer look at the chessboard reveals neither party is in good strategic position to topple the other’s king.

The Republicans’ problem has been their inability to connect with youth and minorities. Only recently have they begun to deemphasize the socially conservative aspects of their platform that have polarized voters since the culture wars of the 1960s. A recent Pew Research poll found that young adults are “clearly more accepting than older Americans of homosexuality, more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation of human life and…are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition.” These and other social issues are not major concerns of young adults, a fact that is slowly being realized as Republicans seek to broaden their voting base.

But Democrats’ recent legislative priorities show they’ve also done a poor job at setting the board up for success. Enormous debt and deficit spending to fund a variety of new programs has created a dire fiscal future that is creating genuine fear among young adults. Then-Sen. Barack Obama said it best in 2006:

Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership.

The rhetoric of 2006 has not translated into reality come 2010. The failure of leadership now continues under his watch with trillions in new debt obligations. Young adults will not be able to ignore the red ink that fills the nation’s ledger forever. Unless Democrats act quickly to reverse the growth of the government’s deficit they will poison the well of Millennial support that carried them to historic victories in 2008.

Griefe’s analysis is faulty and disingenuous for three reasons.

1.) I don’t believe I saw anything from Griefe or anyone else about deficit spending when George W. Bush was in the White House. When Bush entered the Oval Office, Bill Clinton handed his administration a surplus. When he left, we were trillions of dollars in debt. Two major tax cuts and two wars did quite a bit of damage:

Obama’s stimulus package accounted for only .07/$1.00 of the national debt when he signed it into law. Nearly 90 percent of the debt was created under George W. Bush.

To clean up the mess Bush left, Obama has to spend more.

2.) The message about the national debt does not carry any water with Millennials, especially since they are encountering the worst youth unemployment rate since World War II. Our friend Karlo tackled this conservative talking point last year, aptly comparing someone climbing a hill to one’s life-long relationship with government.

Imagine for a moment that you are trying to traverse a hill. The hill represents how much taxes you expect to pay over your lifetime. One end of the hill is the start (the beginning of your life), the top of the hill is middle-age, and the other end of the hill is, well, six-feet-under. At both ends of the hill, you pay relatively little in taxes, and the top of the hill is when you pay the most in taxes. This is what tax-paying looks like throughout the course of one’s life. For some generations, traversing this hill was made easier (but not faster), because the government helped invest in the well-being of the tax-payer very early on in life.

This is not the case with Millennials. The rising cost (PDF) of college and beyond has not resulted in a proportionate increase in services or resources. When you place this fact of rising costs into the context of rising college attendance, the effect is magnified. The share of young people that have attended college has increased 21 percentage points from the 1970s to the present (PDF, pg. 5). What’s more is the fact young people with post-graduate degrees on are on the rise, too. What all this amounts to is a more difficult (but not slower) journey over the hill. It’s almost as if Millennials have to carry a heavy backpack (read: student debt) and still keep pace with everyone else. Now add to that the fact that the end of the hill for Millennials is much farther away than it is for previous generations due to longer life expectancy.

In addition to this, Millennials themselves tell National Journal that they think Obama’s spending has been a good thing.

A plurality of Millennials say they believe that the president’s agenda will increase rather than diminish opportunities for their generation (41 percent to 27 percent). More respondents say that his policies averted an even worse economic crisis (44 percent) than believe that Obama ran up the national debt without doing much good (36 percent). By 46 percent to 31 percent, they also say that the comprehensive health care reform bill Obama recently signed into law is a good thing for the country. Just one-fourth believe that the country is worse off because of the president’s policies; the rest feel that his efforts have significantly improved conditions (16 percent) or are beginning to move the nation in the right direction, even if they haven’t yet produced major gains (43 percent).

Given the toxic economy the Bush policies gave Millennials as they have come of age, making the figurative hill even steeper, the government must invest in the youngest generation to ensure they have a chance of getting over the top, and thankfully, it is.

3.) Griefe comically cites a list of GOPers including Rand Paul and Bob McDonnell as smartly handling social issues in order to keep the focus on the fiscal matters at hand.

This is pretty simple.

Rand Paul doesn’t think the 1964 Civil Rights Act should have passed.

Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia issues a proclamation for Confederate History Month in the commonwealth, failing to mention trafficking of human beings and the consequential brutal decades of Jim Crow.

I’m not sure whether Griefe had a brain lapse here or what. Griefe is right that if the GOP can’t get social issues right, they won’t have any shot at Millennials period. Justin Miller at The Atlantic notes this, describing Millennials as the generation least tolerant of racism. The list of Republicans Griefe provides, though, is laughable. Their clumsy navigation of social issues has provided Democrats with several opportunities to beat back any Republican momentum.

The generational theft argument sounds good, but it doesn’t play with young people. It plays even less with Millennials when it’s shrouded in social issues.

Nice effort. Back to the drawing board.

Pondering Millennial Political Views

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Ben Goddard at The Hill comments on the current generation gap in politics. His discussion reminds us of the coalition-based, yet impatient methodology Millennials use to solve problems.

They have not generally gotten involved with candidates or issues because “Millennials perceive politics as a polarized debate with no options for compromise or nuance,” in the words of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. They don’t want to be limited by political party affiliation. They care about issues important to their “community” and will work with anyone who can get something done.

But [Millennials] are impatient. That is why so many seemed to drift away from President Barack Obama as the healthcare debate dragged on and partisanship in Washington got out of hand. For nearly a year and a half their parents’ and grandparents’ generations argued over what — to many — seemed like petty details. They tuned out not because they didn’t care but because they were bored.

Now that there actually is a healthcare bill, it will be fascinating to see if they are willing to re-engage. The Obama campaign showed how to communicate with and motivate this generation in 2008. Re-engaging them will be crucial to the president’s reelection and, arguably, to Democrats’ congressional future. There are 44 million Millennials eligible to vote, which is about 20 percent of the electorate. Most of them are independents — at least in their voting patterns. Recent polls show independents drifting away from the Republican Party as a result of the angry debate in Washington. The Millennials could lead that bloc of voters back into the Obama/Democrat fold if the president can show that together, they are making a difference. Millennials make up a big community confident in their ability to make change and willing to get involved if the president and congressional Democrats send them the right pithy message: Yes, we did.

Goddard’s assessment is the first I have encountered that accurately captures the Millennials’ move away from Democrats this year. It’s not that they are becoming conservative. It’s that they are looking at an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress — a Congress they have more of a stake in than any other in recent history, given their turnout rate in 2006 and 2008 — and seeing few issues of theirs discussed in a substantive manner. When the focus is on bitter, personal debates — personality rather than the problem itself — any notion that representatives and senators might be interested in problem-solving is out the door.

And now we get to why that impacts our country. The obvious answer is rooted in that generational pact seen in American society for centuries — that each generation is responsible for ensuring that the torch it passes to a new generation burns brighter. We know that the life-long adoption of civic habits like voting are dependent on youth engagement. The more a young person votes when he or she is first eligible, the more he/she will continue to vote later in life. Furthermore, from a large-D Democratic perspective, given the obvious electoral benefits of adding a large, engaged, liberal generation to the voting rolls, the Democrats should be thinking of everything they can do to appeal to young people. In V.O. Key’s terms, the PIG (Party-in-Government) must mind the PIE (Party-in-Electorate), designing ways to better communicate the process so that it doesn’t interfere with young voters’ appreciation of the policy output. Easier said than done, but it must be done.

Bottom line: if we fail to engage a group of young people who are interested in being engaged, we’re not only letting them down, we’re letting our nation down.

Young Americans Not Excited to Vote in Midterms

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In what is some bad news for the Democratic candidates in November’s midterm elections, young people simply aren’t that excited to vote.

According to Gallup daily tracking poll data from March 1 – March 7, 18-29 year olds were the age group with the highest lack of enthusiasm toward voting, with 44 percent of respondents noting that they were “not enthusiastic” about voting in 2010.

One potential problem for Democrats is the lower enthusiasm about voting among young Americans. Twenty percent of registered voters aged 18 to 29 say they are very enthusiastic about voting this November. That compares with 31% to 39% of older age groups who are very enthusiastic.

Younger Americans are decidedly more Democratic than the national average. Thus, their apparent lack of motivation to vote — if it continues until Election Day — could deprive Democrats of the full benefit they could in theory derive if all 18- to 29-year-olds were to vote.

Democrats need to knock this number down quickly if they want to have anything resembling success this November. One way of doing that would be to pass comprehensive health care reform legislation. Young people want to see their politics made up of officeholders who are strong, problem-solving leaders, instead of weak, timid politicians.

While David Plouffe and Barack Obama drew praise with his outside-the-box approach in the 2008 election, including the amazing mobilization of thousands of new young voters, 2010 will be a different story for Democrats across the country unless something significantly changes. While it is only March, this is still very disappointing.

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