Progressives must figure out what happened with young voters
Generational differences may be more important to American politics now than they have ever been in American history. While there was a lot of talk about "the generation gap" in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the partisan and ideological divide between the young and the old is almost certainly bigger now that it has been at any point in out history. Young voters -- like the now largely passed-on New Deal generation of an earlier time -- are at the heart of progressive and Democratic electoral coalitions.
That's why the sharp decline in the share of the electorate made up of young voters played such an important role in the Republican victory in this month's elections. Here are the numbers, based on the network exit poll, available on CNN's website. In 2008, 18- to 29-year olds made up 18 percent of the electorate, while voters 65 and over made up 15 percent of the electorate. This year, the under-30's made up only 12 percent of the electorate, while voters over 65 made up 21 percent. This huge shift was very bad news for Democrats and very good news for Republicans.
On top of that, the Democrats' advantage among young voters (or at least among the young voters who chose to vote in 2010) shrank between the two elections. In 2008, the under 30s voted for Democratic House candidates by 63 percent to 34 percent. In 2010, Democrats won such voters by 55 percent to 42 percent. One interesting question: Did the Democrats' decline come from young people changing their minds, or because many young voters inclined toward the Democrats were pushed to the polls by their enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 and stayed home this time? Democrats -- and social scientists and pollsters, too -- need to figure that out.
Democrats also lost ground among the old -- or, again, failed to turn out their older supporters. In 2008, the 65-and-over voters split 49 percent Democratic in House races, 48 percent Republican. This time, the electorate's oldest voters supported Republicans by an enormous margin: 59 percent to 38 percent.
John Nichols, one of the shrewdest and hardest-working journalists on the progressive side, offers some very shrewd reporting on what went wrong for Democrats among young people on The Nation's Web site. He links his own research to the findings of CIRCLE, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Here is just one of Nichols's observations: "In Champaign County, Illinois, home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the ten precincts identified by local election officials as 'entirely campus' turned out 7,535 votes in 2008. This year, according to a survey by the Politico, the figure fell to 2,615. That represents a 65 percent drop in turnout in precincts were young voters make up most of the electorate." Yes, there was a youth turnout problem on Nov. 2.
Nichols' conclusion is that the decline in youth turnout "cost Democrats Senate and House seats across the country. And the down-ballot losses were even more significant, as close contests for legislative and local races tipped to the Republicans after young people failed to show."
Understanding generational politics is a subject that ought to engage those of us in the media over the next two years. But if inquiry into this area should be of interest to reporters, it is a matter of life-and-death for progressives and Democrats.
| November 16, 2010; 10:44 AM ET
Categories: Dionne | Tags: E.J. Dionne
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