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Progressives must figure out what happened with young voters

By E.J. Dionne

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.

By E.J. Dionne  | November 16, 2010; 10:44 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Young voters know two things:

They cannot get jobs

They are not bigots

Obama decided that the progressive goal of health care was more important the jobs.

When people protested, the progressive called them bigots.

Signed: a Jimmy Carter Democratic that has voted Republican since 1979!

Posted by: TECWRITE | November 16, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Republicans and Tea Partyists needn’t worry; Obama and Harry Reid lack courage.

The lame duck Democratic majorities should bring a bill making the Bush tax cuts permanent (but excluding what cuts are fiscally unacceptable) to the floors of both houses). Obama should declare he will not sign a tax bill granting greater reduction of federal revenues. If the Republicans are smart, they’ll let such a bill pass.

Republicans may foolishly believe they can do better in 2011 with their House majority. The Democratic senate caucus, (i.e. the majority caucus) should draft a new tax bill that is superior to the bill they attempted to pass in 2010. The Senate’s version should be additionally more populous and better stimulate the economy. The Republicans may (if they dare), filibuster that tax reduction bill.

Tax cuts are revenue reductions. (Republicans will strive to make a temporary extension of cuts to become eventually permanent). Reduction of government revenues without accompanying reductions of spending is an economic problem. Democrats will not be blocking tax cuts but by capping the revenue loss they’ll be fiscally more responsible. Obama should only sign a revenue reduction bill that will more effectively stimulate our nation’s economy.

I’ve voted in every general election and missed extremely few Democratic primary elections since 1959. I voted for the Green Party congressional candidate in 2010 because Democrats wouldn’t bring the tax bill to the floor of both houses prior to the general election.

I will not vote for Democrats until the party finds and retains their courage. I have not moved away from my populist convictions. The Democratic Party has moved away from me.

Respectfully, Supposn

Posted by: Supposn | November 16, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps if the Obama administration had worked on issues important to young, progressive voters, it might have had better luck. Ending the US wars in Asia ... budget reform so that generation won't have to pay for what we spend today once we're gone ... decriminalization of marijuana - just for a few. Instead it's all about health care, which is certainly not the first priority on a college student's mind.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | November 16, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Dionne; all,

in point of fact, the "youth vote" stayed home because:
1. they figured out that the DIMocRAT left & the obama fanatics LIED about "the obama agenda" & learned what "change, change, change" really means,
2. we TEA PARTY folks have spent a lot of time recruiting "younger voters" into the local TEA PARTY groups
(we "old folks" will not be around forever.)
3. once ANY voter figures out that the DIMocRATS are only interested in personal POWER & massive needLESS SPENDING (that the "younger voters" will later have to try to pay for), they are gone forever from DIMocRAT/"progressive"/LEFTIST ranks.

to ALL: IF you are as disgusted as our members are with THE MESS that BHO & the DIMocRATS have made of our country , come join the TEA PARTY group in your city/county/parish & help us "take out the trash" from every elected & appointed office from your local courthouse to the White House.
you will be warmly welcomed & quickly "put to work" to help us fix the mess that the DIMocRAT "elitists" & "ruling class" have made of our government.

just my opinion. - i do NOT & CANNOT speak for our local TEA PARTY group, absent a vote on each issue.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | November 16, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

As a young voter, let me weigh in. First of all, conservatives love to say we have a "center-right nation." We don't. We have a center-right voting populace. Lots of young people are progressives - true progressives. We want the wars to end, we want to scale back the military, we want gay marriage and marijuana to be legal at the national level. We are not religious, and we want religion out of government and science classes. We want real drug law reform. We want less government surveillance and intrustion. We want abortion to be legal and stay legal. As a result, we have no politicans who are willing to pander to us. And unless we live on the West or East Coasts, we have no representation at all in Washington. We feel marginalized and disenfranchised. Obama appealed to us in '08, but never really pursued a liberal agenda (perhaps he wanted to, but couldn't have). Basically, young people stayed at home, because we feel that a vote for anyone is a waste, because at the end of the day, all voters want to know: What's in it for us? For young, liberal people, the answer to that question is "Not much." Most of the apathetic voters are liberals...which is why they're apathetic. You get a real progressive on the ballot and you'll see the young people turn out in droves.

Posted by: LouisianaDoug | November 16, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Also, young people care about the environment. The Democrats failed to pass meaningful carbon emissions legislation with control of the White House, the House and a 59-41 majority in the Senate. This hurt Democrats badly.

Posted by: LouisianaDoug | November 16, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

LouisianaDoug; all,

face it, the DIMocRAT "leadership" cares NOTHING for anything/anybody but themselves & their cronies in "the ruling class".

further, if tomorrow, 2% of the electorate decided to engage in cannibalism, the DIMocRATS would embrace that practice as "an alternate lifestyle choice" & offer free White House recipes for cooking people. = "the DIMocRATS leadership" has neither morals nor would they spit on "ordinary folks" if we all caught fire.

come join the TEA PARTY in your local parish & help us fix the mess that the elitists/criminals have made of our republic.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | November 16, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

TN46, I actually went to a Tea Party protest in Baton Rouge. It was a joke. There were about 200 people (old, white people) dressed like idiots spewing hyperbolic nonsense, kind of like you did in your comment. The Tea Party is a joke, and come 2012, it'll be the Democrats' best friend.

Posted by: LouisianaDoug | November 16, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

LouisianDoug; all,

actually the TEA PARTY (nationally) is over 30% people under 35YO & has about 25% "persons other than white" (fyi, 25% is about the percentage of "non-whites" in the USA) in our membership.
(like ME for example = i'm the nearest thing that your county's TP group has to an "officer" & i'm NOT "white".- we TP folks are so "rebellious" that most of the groups don't have "officers".)

i cannot say that sort of "rally" that you say that you attended (i suspect it must have been at/near a retirement/senior's center.) but it certainly is NOT typical of the TEA PARTY.

fwiw, the TEA PARTY is here to stay & we are the DIMocRATS/elitists/"ruling class's" worst nightmare.
(IF you are a DIMocRAT official/bureaucrat & reading these lines, prepare to be REMOVED from your "position of authority" in 2012.)

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | November 16, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Just tellin' you what I saw. By the way, I think your Caps Lock key may be broken. You may want to get that fixed.

Posted by: LouisianaDoug | November 16, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

The 2008 election was the first time that I really had hope for the future of the country. I expected Obama to fight for a progressive agenda, and fight back against the extreme right. I, unfortunately, don't feel that he did that. As a result, I think that I, along with many people in my generation, have come to the conclusion that the Democratic Party will not be a real agent for change. The reality is that the Democratic Party is pretty much on par with mainstream European conservative parties.

I voted Green Party straight down the ticket in 2010, and the main issue that turned me off to Democrats was their cowardly stance on health reform. I have always believed, and still believe, that single payer is the solution. I realize that Obama did not campaign on single payer, but he did campaign on the public option. I supported this as a compromise because it at least moved us in the direction of public health care, and gave people another option besides the private, for profit insurance cartels. Instead, the reform that passed mandates that we purchase insurance from the same criminal enterprises. They will undoubtedly continue to use a percentage of every premium dollar spent to fight genuine reform; a fully universal public health care system funded by a progressive tax.

Health care is not the only issue though. What happened to the Employee Free Choice Act that would have made it easier for workers to form unions? Why is Guantanamo not closed? Why haven't we made any progress ending unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why has there been no movement toward lifting the Cuban Embargo as promised? Why has there been no advancement toward equal rights for same sex couples? And most of all, why to the Democrats insist on clinging to the same, bankrupt Reaganomics that have been decimating our working and middle class for the last three decades? There are, of course, many more issues, but that gives a general idea of our disappointment with the Democratic Party.

We want politicians who will fight for these issues, not politicians who are going to capitulate to the anti-intellectual right at every turn. We understand that every battle may not be won right away, but the Democrats need to learn how to have a set a principles, draw lines in the sand, and stand by them. We don't regard the enacting of center-right policies, as opposed to extreme right policies, as victories, no matter how much the Democrats try to paint it that way. That is why the Democrats lost young voters, and disenfranchised the progressive base in general. Wake up Democrats.

Posted by: Omar23 | November 16, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Young voters like myself voted for Obama because he promised a better jobs market, an end to the wars, and a change to the way Washington does business. He hasn't delivered on any of that. Jobs of course being by far the most important.

Plus he sold out young voters in the health care plan, now we are going to get to pay even more/be forced to get expensive insurance plans to pay for the elderly and obese. Thanks a bunch for that.

Obama promised a lot to young voters, then went in a totally different direction. As the class that is usually among the most disrespected in national politics, you can't say we got fooled twice.

Posted by: svonberg | November 16, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

E.J. usually is smarter than this. There always is a drop-off in the midterms from a presidential year. Compare with 2006 and get back to us.

As for the disappointment of younger voters with Obama because "he hasn't delivered on any of that," I would respectfully ask whether the young voters who helped elect him continued to participate by calling and writing their members of Congress and sending petitions to them, or did they sit back and wait for Obama to wave his magic wand and make all of Congress do his bidding. The answer in most cases is the latter, and that helps explain why we are in the position we are in, with an incoming Republican speaker whose greatest claims to fame are doing whatever lobbyists tell him and helping to shield a pedophilia scandal.

Posted by: greenm1 | November 16, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse


it has been my long experience that NITWITS are more concerned with form than with content. furthermore, this "majoring on the unimportant minors" generally causes the "complainer about style over substance" to be ridiculed.

fwiw, what i posted about the TEA PARTY is FACTUAL & what you posted on this site about the rally that you attended is, in the experience of the active TP folks around the nation, quite the opposite.
(in fact, the TEA PARTY is growing at a rate of about 6% per week & at our current rate of growth the movement will be larger than the DIMocRAT & Republican parties, COMBINED within a year.)

can you provide everyone a name of the TP group/date/time/place for the rally that you attended?
(frankly, i have my doubts about your veracity, inasmuch as even my little rural county routinely "turns out" well over 3,000 attendees for each public event. - the city of Baton Rouge is a great deal larger than the total population of our county & 200 attendees sounds "highly suspicious".)

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | November 16, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

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