Why Youth Apathy Should Worry the Dems in 2010

The young voters who help elect Obama were hailed as being the most politically engaged generation in recent history. But now Democrats are wondering if their young supporters will even bother to show up to vote in this year’s midterm elections. Poll after poll shows that Democrats are facing a worrying enthusiasm gap, both on the national level and in key swing states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And young voters are among the Democratic-leaning groups who seem decidedly less fired up about turning out to vote this year, according to a new study from the Harvard Institute of Politics.

According to the study, only 35 percent of young Democratic voters under the age of 30 plan to vote in the midterms this fall, compared to 41 percent of young Republicans. Similarly, 53 percent of young McCain voters say they definitely plan to turn out, compared to 44 percent of Obama voters.

The numbers are striking, as Obama’s approval rating among young voters remains quite high, at 56 percent. But there have been signs throughout the past year that youth political participation has dropped off since Obama has taken office, even though they’ve been on board with the president. While senior citizens became the face of the health care town hall protests last year, young voters largely stayed on the sidelines during the debate despite their general support for the bill. And, as Jesse Singal explains, dismally low turnout among young voters exacerbated the Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial election last year, as well as January’s Senate race in Massachusetts.


The Democrats do have the opportunity to make some direct appeals to young voters, despite the prevailing mood of disengagement. If the health care bill passes, for instance, people up to 26 years old will be able to stay on their parents’ health care plans—one of the small number of reforms that will take effect immediately, should the legislation pass. As the group that’s most likely to be uninsured, young people might be particularly receptive to an election message built around the bill’s passage (or the obstructionist efforts by the Republicans to defeat it and deny them coverage). But the Democrats will need to make a concerted effort to target young Democratic voters whose excitement has turned into apathy.