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Barack Obama and the difficulty of energizing young voters

Can President Obama re-create the energy and enthusiasm among young voters that he enjoyed in 2008? REUTERS/Joshua Lott

President Barack Obama will be in Madison, Wisconsin later today for a rally designed to re-energize young people in advance of the Nov. 2 midterm elections

Obama and his senior political strategists have made no secret of the fact that they believe turning out college-age -- and slightly older -- voters, who formed one of the pillars of his own electoral victory in 2008, is essential to limiting Democratic losses in the House and Senate this fall.

"You can't sit it out," Obama told a group of college journalists on a conference call Monday previewing today's visit. "You can't suddenly just check in once every 10 years or so, on an exciting presidential election, and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we've got a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans."

The problem for Obama is that he and his top advisers are fighting long-term historic trends that suggest that young people are doing just that -- paying far less attention to this midterm race than they did to the presidential contest two years ago.

Before we get into those numbers, it's important to clarify exactly why young voters mattered in 2008.

The myth that has grown up around that election is that young people -- for the purposes of this discussion we are using that term to describe anyone between 18-29 years old-- turned out in far greater numbers than in elections past.

Not true.

According to exit polling, young voters made up 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 while they comprised 17 percent of the electorate in 2004.

While young voters then weren't a significantly larger chunk of the overall vote, they did vote far more heavily for Obama than they had for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

Obama took won voters aged 18-29 by 34 points in 2008, a margin almost four times as wide as Kerry carried them four years earlier.

The consolidation of young voters then was the story of the 2008 election, a rallying effect that -- given Kerry's far weaker showing in 2004 -- seems attributable in no small part to a personal connection young people felt to Obama rather than to his party or a set of issues.

In the intervening two years, that shine has worn off somewhat among young voters -- an almost-inevitable erosion that is the result of the differences between the excitement of a campaign and the mundane day in, day out-ness of governing. ("The euphoria has dimmed down," one college student told the Post's Phil Rucker in advance of the President's visit today.)

That "dimming" effect could well make it more difficult for Obama and Democrats to overcome historical trends -- and more recent polling -- that make clear that young people are simply not as interested in midterm elections as presidential ones.

In the 2006 midterm election, exit polling showed that voters aged 18-29 made up just 12 percent of the electorate although they voted for Democrats by 22 points. In the 1998 midterm election, young voters comprised a similar 13 percent of the electorate -- splitting their vote evenly between Democrats and Republicans. (The 2002 exit polls had widespread problems and, as a result, aren't regarded as scientifically sound enough to cite.)

Those exit poll numbers, which suggest the youth vote drops by as much as a third between a presidential and a midterm election, are affirmed by more recent poll data regarding the approaching 2010 election.

In a recent Pew poll, 45 percent of voters aged 18-29 said they definitely planned to vote this fall as compared to 68 percent of voters aged 30-49 and a whopping 84 percent of voters 65 and older who said the same.

In past Pew data for midterms, the percentage of young voters who said they definitely planned to vote has varied from a low of 39 percent (in 2002) to a high of 48 percent (in 2006) but has never risen above 50 percent. (The 65+ numbers, by contrast have never dipped below 69 percent.)

All of that data doesn't mean that the White House's focus on young voters is for naught, however. David Plouffe, who managed Obama's 2008 campaign, has suggested that even a slight uptick in young voters' participation could matter in close contests; "races where you're losing 52 to 48, you can flip it," said Plouffe.

And, there are a number of competitive House races -- Virginia's 5th, Ohio's 15th, Arizona's 5th, Colorado's 4th and Indiana's 9th to name a few -- that have large college/university populations where even a thousand or two votes from young people for Democrats could -- and we emphasize could -- make a difference.

But, historical facts are tough to dispute. In 2008, President Obama demonstrated an ability to consolidate the votes of young people that no president -- Democrat or Republican -- had come close to doing before.

To vastly increase -- or even marginally increase -- turnout among young voters would require him to again bend the curve of electoral history in midterm elections.

If there is any figure in modern politics who can do it, it's Obama given his demonstrated electoral appeal among young people. But, the task before him is very tough. Can he buck the historical trend again?

By Chris Cillizza  | September 28, 2010; 1:33 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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