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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Mid-Terms: Playing the (Middle) Age Card

WaPo columnist Chris Cillizza’s “Democrats’ young voter problem” in today’s edition of The Fix addresses a challenge facing Democrats regarding an important constituency. Drawing from a Gallup tracking poll, conducted 4/1-25, Cillizza explains:

Less than one in four voters aged 18-29 described themselves as “very enthusiastic” about the 2010 midterm election. Those numbers compare unfavorably to voters between 50 and 64 (44 percent “very enthusiastic”), 65 and older (41 percent “very enthusiastic”) and 30 to 49 (32 percent “very enthusiastic”).

Cillizza argues plausibly enough that this youth “enthusiasm” gap, especially in context of current events, makes it very difficult to recreate the pro-Democratic coalition that elected Obama for the mid-term elections. The concern is that low enthusiasm will translate into low turnout, which is especially worrisome because young voters are tilting Democratic, as the Gallup data indicates:

The Gallup data affirms the clear Democratic tilt of young voters. On a generic congressional ballot test, 51 percent of 18-29 year old vote opted for the Democratic candidate while 39 percent chose the Republican. In every other age group, the generic was either statistically tied or the GOP candidate led. (Republicans’ best age group was voters 65 and older who chose a GOP candidate by a 50 percent to 41 percent margin over a generic Democrat.)

Of course, Democrats would like a strong youth turnout in November. But how important is the youth turnout, compared to other age groups? Here’s an age breakdown of the last (2006) mid-term turnout, according to CNN exit polling:

18-29 12%
30-44 24%
45-59 34%
60+ 29%

Assuming age demographics in 2010 are not terribly different from ’06, it appears that the youth vote will be a relatively small segment, compared to older age groups. Perhaps youth turnout can be increased slightly with a targeted GOTV campaign. But it seems prudent to ask if putting more resources into targeting the 45-59 cohort — almost triple the percentage of young voters in ’06 — might be more cost-effective.
Of course it’s not so easy to craft appeals to arbitrary age groups. But one experience being shared by many in the 45-59 cohort is financing their kids’ college education, as tuition costs continue to rise dramatically. A brand new, well-publicized Democratic plan to provide tuition assistance through beefed up scholarships and tuition tax breaks might do very well with this high mid-term turnout group. And, as a collateral benefit, it could also help with young people who would like to go to college but can’t afford it.
There is nothing parents want more than for their kids to do well, and they know that a good education is the surest ticket to fulfilling that goal. The party that strives to help fulfill this dream will not go unrewarded by middle-aged voters.

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