Opinion

How can Democrats stop the Republican tide this election? Young voters.

Our own analysis shows that if 18-to-29-year olds voted as they did in 2008, they could potentially flip the election for Democrats. But efforts to woo back the youth vote – like Obama's Daily Show appearance – may be too little, too late.

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As 20-somethings, we are often accused of having an exaggerated sense of self-importance. But this political season, we have every reason to be self-absorbed. After voting for Democrats in record numbers in 2008, our generation has retreated from the political arena, and the Democratic Party has failed to bring us back. Losing our generation may now cost them control of Congress.

Just how crucial is the Millennial vote to Democratic success? Consider this: If young people voted in this upcoming election at the same rate as in 2008, it could completely turn the tables for Democrats and stop the Republican tide.

Unfortunately, Democrats have done too little, too late to woo young voters. (President Obama's appearance on The Daily Show five days before the election, a Rolling Stone interview, and an MTV Town Hall aren’t going to cut it.)

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The cost of losing young voters

It is well-documented that young, first-time voters played an important role in the 2008 general election. In addition to massive youth volunteer efforts, our generation, 18-to-29-year-olds, voted at a rate of 51.1 percent and comprised a total share of 17.1 percent votes cast – both numbers the highest since 1992.

But many young people enamored of President Obama’s "hope" and "change" slogans in 2008 have since lost interest in politics. Gallup has reported that 18-to-29-year-olds have consistently been among the least-enthusiastic voting demographics. In an October poll, just 23 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting. In fact, the most recent Gallup figures predict that young voters will make up just 7 percent of the vote in 2010 – a percentage consistent with past midterm elections, but a far cry from 2008, when they made up 17 percent.

This is a real problem for Democrats. An October Pew poll found that the “generic ballot” gave a 46-42 percent edge to Republicans. But the poll also found that young voters still favor Democrats over Republicans, although the margin is much narrower than in 2008.

Two Election Day scenarios

Based on these findings, we wanted to test the impact of low youth turnout in 2010. So we created two alternate Election Day scenarios:

1) Young people vote in the same numbers as 2008, but along current party preferences.

2) Young people turn out in the same numbers and vote as intensely for Democrats as 2008.

Under the first scenario, Democrats close the gap, but still trail in the generic ballot. In other words, simple youth turnout with current party preferences isn’t enough for the Democrats to claim national majority support, though it could stop the bleeding in close races.

The second scenario is more interesting. In 2008, young voters cast ballots overwhelmingly for Democrats, especially for Obama – at 66 percent to 32 percent. If those intensely Democratic voters make up about 17 percent of the vote, as they did in 2008, the electorate flips the ballot to give Democrats a 1.5 percentage point advantage.

This calculation makes the cost of losing our generation’s enthusiasm over the past two years startlingly clear.

Keeping young voters engaged

So how can the Democratic Party keep young people engaged?

One common criticism of the Obama administration is that the rhetorical strategy that positioned candidate Obama as the leader of a movement for change is ill-suited to the realities of policymaking.

This could be true. But even our cursory analysis suggests that a “hope" and "change” strategy is quite well-suited to young people who thirst for big answers to big problems. Research consistently shows that young people tend to be more optimistic about the future than older people. This disposition makes them especially receptive to ambitious promises for change.

The original message wasn’t wrong. Democrats just have to find a way to sustain this movement, counteracting the traditional ebb of young voters at midterm time.

More sustained youth-outreach is probably part of the answer. Democrats – now led by a former community organizer – should heed the lesson that real social movements require consistent local contact during the 24 months between each election. This could mean strengthening local forums for young people to speak with Members of Congress and providing them with opportunities to participate in meaningful policy discussions.

This will require the party to connect with young voters on their own terms, even when the realities of governing force Democrats to become the party of incremental compromise rather than the party of national transformation. Embracing those two opposed identities – change and compromise – is, no doubt, a difficult task. But if Democrats hope to sustain a majority, it may be a necessary one.

It may be too late for youth to make a big difference on November 2, but it’s not too late to change the future of the party long-term.

Daniel Altschuler is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College, was a Rhodes scholar, and volunteered on the Obama ‘08 campaign. Sam Gill is a political consultant, was also a Rhodes scholar, and contributes to ThePublicPhilosopher.com.

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