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Young voters not engaged in midterms, surveys show

By Felicia Sonmez

Democrats face a big hurdle in motivating young voters to go to the polls this November, according to two new surveys released today.

A Pew Research Center study shows that only 45 percent of registered voters aged 18 to 29 say they "definitely will vote" this November. That's much lower than the 71 percent of all registered voters who say they will definitely vote next month.

Another survey released today by Harvard University's Institute of Politics puts the number much lower -- only 27 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds surveyed said they definitely will be voting in the midterms. Sixteen percent said they probably will be voting, 21 percent said their chances are 50/50, and 36 percent said they either definitely or probably won't be voting.

By contrast, fifty-seven percent of the 18-to-29-year-olds surveyed in Institute of Politics poll said they voted in the 2008 general election, either at a polling place or by absentee ballot.

Young voters also less likely than other age groups when asked how much they're thinking about this year's midterms. Thirty-three percent of young voters say they've given a lot of thought to the election, while 50 percent of registered voters aged 30-49, 61 percent of voters aged 50-64 and 69 percent of voters aged 65 and over said the same.

The new polls highlight a dilemma that's typical in midterm elections but of increased importance to Democrats this election cycle -- young people, who were critical to Obama's coalition in 2008, are less engaged now than they were during the presidential race two years ago.

In the 2006 midterms, voters aged 18 to 29 made up only 12 percent of all voters; Democrats won them by 22 points.

By comparison, young voters comprised 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, according to exit polls. Obama won those voters by a margin of 34 percentage points -- 66 percent backed Obama while only 32 percent backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

In 2004, young voters comprised 17 percent of the electorate -- roughly on par with 2008 -- but Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won them by only nine points, a much smaller margin than Obama did four years later (54 percent of young voters backed Kerry while 45 percent backed President George W. Bush.

Obama has headlined numerous events in recent weeks geared toward energizing young voters, including a series of rallies at college campuses and a youth town hall that was sponsored by MTV, BET and CMT. The president also recently cut a 30-second TV ad that aired on MSNBC and BET last Thursday urging young voters to "make history again," and national Democrats are spending millions of dollars on efforts to mobilize young and minority voters who went to the polls for the first time in 2008.

The new surveys are the latest evidence that those mobilization efforts will be key for Democrats if they are to hold their ground at the polls next month. Democrats in some states are already pointing to figures showing increased voter registration among young people; the Ohio Democratic Party, for instance, issued a release today noting that 57 percent of the nearly 70,000 Ohioans who registered to vote in the month leading up to the Oct. 4 deadline were under the age of 30, according to the state secretary of state's office.

(Also interesting in the Pew study is that young voters care less than older voters about the sources of campaign ad funding - an issue the White House and national Democrats have put an increasing emphasis on during the final weeks of the campaign. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters aged 18 to 29 said it was important for them to know who paid for campaign ads, compared with 45 percent of 30-to-49-year-olds, 51 percent of 50-to-64-year-olds and 56 percent of those 65 and older.)

By Felicia Sonmez  | October 21, 2010; 3:08 PM ET
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