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Students, Young Voters Ignored by Midterm Candidates

Political candidates and campaigns turned off younger voters, a demographic that turned out in droves only two years ago.


According to analysis from exit polls conducted yesterday, CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University) estimates that a little more than 20 percent of young people (18 to 29) voted in yesterday's midterm election. That's slightly down from the 2006, when 23 percent of the demographic voted.

During a conference call with reporters this morning, representatives from Rock the Vote and The League of Young Voters noted that voter participation campaigns their organizations (and others like them) ran were successful at getting young people to polls. In particular, Rock the Vote efforts in Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania (which focused on campuses, such as the University of Florida, University of North Carolina, Drexel, and the University of Pennsylvania), increased turnout by between 25 perent and 100 percent said its president, Heather Smith. The young people that did turn out, according to CIRCLE's analysis, tended to favor Democrats—a pattern that arose in 2002—with 56 percent pulling the lever for Obama's party (compared with 40 percent voting Republican).


But, unfortunately, whereas these outreach efforts were effective in motivating students and young adults, the tone of the campaign and the candidates themselves turned off the youth vote. According to Smith:

The Republicans could have chipped away at the partisan voting behavior of this young voter bloc. Instead the margins remain unchanged compared to 2006, in terms of their Democratic favorability. And second, I believe the Democrats could have seen a very different outcome had they engaged in targeting young voters. Regardless, with high unemployment, personal and national rising debt, young Americans really face real challenges and what they saw from candidates and outside interest groups was quite disconnected and irrelevant to their lives and concerns.

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The experts noted both a "leadership gap" and a "boldness gap" that kept young people from the polls. Issues important to 18- to 29-year-olds, such as unemployment, cost of college, and climate change were overshadowed by partisan bickering, they say. Even the debate on the health care bill seemed to miss this crucial group, according to Smith:

The health care issue during the campaign was really being used as a repeal the Obama health care act versus not. And that was a major talking point of the Republicans and in particular the Tea Party that was being used to motivate and anger older voters. What we saw was the president start to do was message around the fact that you can stay on your parents health care plan until the age of 26, but the candidates weren't running on that. the bottom line is that young people are just simply not motivated right now by anger. And older people are quite angry.

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Ultimately, the sophisticated campaign run by Barack Obama in 2008 failed to give rise to a sustained effort at keeping 18- to 29-year-olds engaged, transitioning their attention from campaigning to governing. Whereas many candidates, Democrats in particular, could attribute at least part of their election in 2008 to increased enthusiasm and turnout amongst young people, they seemed to turn their back on the demographic, which the experts say remains optimistic about its future, this time around.

CIRCLE Director Peter Levine said that the 21st century campaigning showcased in 2008 seemed to give way to more traditional methods this year:

We've gone through a period where there's been a lot of innovation and risk-taking in getting out young people, some of it technological and some of it strategic, like a different kind of messaging and also a willingness to trust a lot of responsibility to young volunteers as the Obama campaign did. So, I think it's surprising and distressing that there hasn't been any innovation or risk-taking or creativity since the 2008 election by the political class.

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Photo via CIRCLE.

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