Will Obama’s youth movement return for crucial midterm vote?

A question mark looms over whether the young voters who propelled Obama into the White House will show up to support the president’s Democrats in the high-stakes midterm elections on November 2.


In his victory speech on election night in 2008, President Barack Obama paid tribute to “the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy, who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep”.

Indeed, the “youth vote” helped sweep Obama into office: nearly 24 million voters aged 18 to 29 went to the polls – the highest number since the early 70s – and two-thirds of them cast their ballots for the current president. Buoyed by anti-Bush sentiment, economic anxiety, and a charismatic candidate, young Americans stuck with Obama through a long campaign, then turned up in droves to hand him a landslide win and a mandate for ambitious left-leaning reforms.

Two years on, the future of Obama’s agenda depends on Democrats’ ability to hold on to both houses of Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) in “midterm” elections on November 2. But recent surveys suggest that young voters who helped propel the president to the White House will not necessarily make it to their neighbourhood polling stations to support congressmen and governors from Obama’s party.

A Gallup poll earlier this month showed that the percentage of voters aged 18 to 29 paying attention to the midterm elections was a dismal 19%, compared to 75% for the 2008 presidential election. A few weeks earlier, a CNN survey found older voters considerably more enthusiastic about voting this November than younger voters.

Old electoral patterns die hard

The fact that youth turnout in 2010 will likely not be as high as in 2008 is not in itself surprising. “The main reason for this has nothing to do with Obama”, said Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, in an interview with “While all groups of voters show up to the polls at lower rates in midterm years, this is particularly true of young voters”.

With lesser-known candidates and state-oriented campaign platforms, midterm elections often fly under the radar for young voters - many of whom, according to Darrell West, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution, are “only peripherally engaged in politics and don’t see it as very important to their day-to-day lives”.

But these particular midterm elections could have dramatic political ramifications; legislation on immigration, climate, and a range of other issues Obama has vowed to push could be stopped cold if Republicans take over the House of Representatives (as is predicted). More extreme forecasts envision Obama losing both chambers of Congress, as Bill Clinton did in 1994, resulting in a stalemate between a right-leaning legislative body and a left-leaning executive office.

The high stakes have still not sparked the kind of youth-powered grassroots movement that prevailed in 2008. “These smaller campaigns are having a more difficult time engaging young voters… I have noticed almost nothing around me”, said Pennsylvania voter Laura Silver, 24, in an interview with “With the Obama candidacy, it was in-your-face, and people were excited and mobilised”.

Massachusetts voter Jeff Wong, also 24, agreed. “Two years ago, it seemed like the election was the popular thing to talk about. Everyone had some sort of picture of Obama on their Facebook profile”, he said. “Now, people aren't talking about the election so much”. Wong thinks one reason is that Obama was “a once-in-a-generation” political figure. “I don't think we'll ever see quite that level of engagement with another candidate”, he noted.

‘Things don’t feel any different’

But if some young voters stay home November 2 because Obama is not on the ballot, others may do so because they feel he has not lived up to hopes he inspired on the campaign trail. “Candidate Obama was very successful in mobilising youthful voters in 2008 because of his opposition to the Iraq War and appeals for change”, explained Darrell West of the Brookings Institute. “With the difficulties he is having in getting things done, it is harder to arouse young people…”

Emily Einhorn, 24, will vote for Democrats in Massachusetts in November, but she is one of those young voters whose enthusiasm is dampened. “I was really excited for change and a new political landscape”, Einhorn said. “But because of filibusters (a form of obstruction in a legislative body where a member can elect to delay or entirely prevent a vote) by Republicans and the reality of the political world, things don't feel any different”.

A recent poll found that while young voters still favour Obama (56%) and Democrats (46%) over Republicans (36%), the enthusiasm gap between young Democrats and young Republicans is significant: 61% of young Republicans are enthusiastic about their party versus 51% of Democrats.

Indeed, despite large-scale legislative accomplishments like the stimulus package, health care overhaul, and financial regulation reform, Democrats have seen their brand tarnished by continued economic woes, an increasingly unpopular operation in Afghanistan, and a thicket of domestic issues caught in partisan crossfire in Congress. Mohini Nambisan, a 19-year-old Nevada voter, told that these days, “the label of being a ‘Democrat’ is something that youth and politicians, as well, are hesitant to claim”.

Firing up young voters

Meanwhile, youth-oriented organisations like the non-partisan Rock the Vote are trying to re-engage young voters in time for midterms. Interviewed by, Rock the Vote communications director Maegan Carberry acknowledged that many young voters are disconnected from politics right now. “Unemployment among young people is double that of the general population”, she said. “It's difficult to stay on top of the political atmosphere when you're trying to make ends meet”.

To combat that reality, Rock the Vote is “running its largest midterm elections campaign in the organisation's 20-year history”, relying on “digital tools, such as email and texting” that proved effective in boosting youth turnout in 2008.

Rallies planned for 10 days before the elections by two popular left-wing TV personalities, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, also seem intended to help fire up young Democratic-leaning voters.

Some young Democrats are aware of the stakes this year, and need no further prodding. Emily Einhorn of Massachusetts said her misgivings about the political climate won’t keep her from the voting booth in November. “Seeing Sarah Palin on TV gives me the motivation I may otherwise lack to get to the polls”, Einhorn said. “Instead of being motivated from the excitement I had in 2008, I’m now terrified of where the country could go, and vote to keep that from happening”.

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