Mark Bayerleins “Are Democrats Losing the Youth Vote?” in the New York Times will undoubtedly evoke despairing sighs among those who would like to see a stronger Democratic Party. Here’s the statistical nut of Bayerlein’s article:
Six years ago, voters aged 18 to 29 favored Barack Obama over his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, by a ratio of two to one and justified Time’s announcement that 2008 was “The Year of the Youth Vote.” Two years previously, in midterm races for the House, the same demographic went for Democrats 60 percent to 38 percent.
In 2012, President Obama’s advantage slipped, but under-30 voters still gave him a 23-point edge, 60 percent to 37 percent. No wonder this year the president appeared two days before the election at Temple University, where he exhorted the crowd, “So I need all of you to go grab your friends, grab your classmates… I need you to vote.”
But it turned out that 2012 was no anomaly. Turnout for young voters this year was around 21 percent, typical for midterms, but the breakdown was disappointing for the left: Exit poll data show that young voters backed House Democrats 54 percent to 43 percent, half the advantage of 2006 and two percentage points lower than in 2010.
The Senate contests were last fought in 2008, a presidential year, and here the plummet was startling. In North Carolina the rate at which young people voted Democratic fell to 54 percent this year from 71 percent in 2008. Virginia saw it slide to 50 percent from 71 percent. In Arkansas and Alaska, a majority of young voters went Republican.
These last figures for North Carolina are particularly concerning, because of the importance of the Research Triangle in statewide voting. The hope has been that NC’s college community would become the driving wheel for steering the state into the purple/blue spectrum.
Unfortunately, most discussions of youth voting trends fail to take much account of class differences, as reflected in the distinction between college youth and young workers. Bayerlein’s numbers also lump them together. For a more nuanced consideration, it would be interesting to compare the turnout rates and party preferences of the two sub-categories, and perhaps factor in marital/parental status.
Young people do share a range of common concerns, regardless of their educational and employment status, which may be reflected in their political party preferences. As Bayerlein notes,
Given recent surveys of youth attitudes, though, we shouldn’t be surprised. Last April, Harvard’s Institute of Politics found a growing gap in party loyalty between younger millennials and older ones. In 2010, 18-to-24-year-olds chose to self-identify as “Democrat” over “Republican” by 15 percentage points, or 38 percent to 23 percent. By 2014, that gap had narrowed to 10 percentage points, 35 to 25, even as older millennials, between 25 and 29 years old, maintained that 15-percentage-point split. What’s more, 18-to-24-year-olds who called themselves “moderate,” not “liberal” or “conservative,” climbed five points, to 31 percent.
A Pew Research Center survey released in March found that while 40 percent of millennials in 2006 considered themselves political independents, now 50 percent of them do. Moreover, 31 percent believe there is not “a great deal of difference in what Republicans and Democrats stand for.”
Such disturbing indicators are disappointing for Democrats, who have spent huge sums trying to educate and motivate young people in recent decades. It’s not just the old saw about youth being ‘the future of our country’ etc. It’s more about the frustration that comes with realizing that, on just about every issue of special concern for young people, Republicans stand in opposition, while Democrats support the reforms youth favor — regarding climate change and environmental protection, minimum wage increase, aid to education, income inequality, same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, affordable housing etc. — the list goes on and on.
But then, why should young people be any more likely than other constituencies and demographic groups to reliably vote their policy interests? White working-class males, for example, get little if any economic benefit from the policies of the Republican candidates they overwhelmingly support.
It appears that Democrats have a “branding” problem that often trumps economic interest and policy preferences. George Lakoff hinted at it in his recent analysis of the 2014 elections: “Democratic strategists have been segmenting the electorate and seeking individual self-interest-based issues in each electoral block. The strategists also keep suggesting a move to the right. This has left no room for the Democrats to have an overriding authentic moral identity that Americans can recognize.”
If Lakoff is right, many voters prefer Republican clarity to a muddled, balkanized Democratic message. Democrats have failed to clearly express their “authentic moral identity,” which would resonate with youth, white workers and other constituencies. To some extent, it’s an unavoidable problem for a “big tent” party, but it’s not necessarily an insoluble one.
The midterm electorate is a different beast from presidential elections. But Obama’s extraordinary ability to inspire hope in young voters 2008 is nonetheless instructive for Democrats in all elections. An enhanced commitment to establishing a clear, unique “moral identity” as the party of hope for young people would likely serve the Democratic party well.