Youth Apathy: A Democratic Midterm Nightmare

Matt McDermott, Columnist

Should Tuesday’s Midterm election outcome be of concern to national Democrats or are the results easily explainable? It’s a mixed bag really.


First, let me discuss the elephant in the room before I move on to the youth vote and its glaring effects on yesterday’s turnout.  Republicans won nationally by a roughly 52-45 percent margin against Democrats according to exit poll conducting, a seven point margin and on par with other historical Midterm elections.


The bad news from Tuesday, Independents swung sharply towards Republicans. While still making up 28 percent of the electorate (same as 2008), Republicans won Independents 56 to 38 percent—a 26-point swing from 2008 when Democrats won these voters 51 to 43 percent.


These numbers among Independents sound terrible, but putting them in context will give us a much more accurate picture of what happened Tuesday. The greatest hindrance to Democratic efforts in this election was the fact that turnout was tied among Democrats and Republicans, at 36 percent each.  In 2008, Democrats saw a turnout of 40 percent, finishing far ahead of the Republicans who ended at 33 percent.


Putting this in perspective, had Democrats turned out at the same level as 2008, Republicans would have only won nationally by a 50-49 margin. Let me highlight this point again—had Democrats turned out at the levels of two years ago, even with Independents swinging 26 points towards the Republicans, Republicans would have only won by one percent.  Effectively, Democrats would have easily retained the House and would have picked up Pennsylvania and Illinois Senate seats (though, as an aside, Democrats already had an impressive night winning tough Senate races).


So which Democratic voting blocks are to blame for this meager turnout? And why—even though in the end the effects were negligible—have I argued for many months that national Democrats should have been going after core 2008 constituencies? Why, even though at the time many pundits considered it foolish, did I think it was rational and effective for the President to spend time on The Daily Show, MTV, BET, even Ryan Seacrest? Why should the President have gone to major urban centers to hold campaign rallies sooner than the final three weeks?


A part of the difference comes from African American voters, who dropped from having 13 percent of the national vote share in 2008 to a 10 percent share on Tuesday. 


By and large, though, the four percent drop in Democratic turnout is most attributed to the youth demographic. While in 2008, 47 percent of the electorate was under the age of 44 (with 18 percent in the 18-29 age demographic), in 2010, turnout among this age group crumbled to 34 percent (with only 11 percent in the 18-29 demographic).  Even more startling, among 18-24 year-olds, turnout halved from 10 percent in 2008 to a mere 5 percent this year. While one in every 10 voters was a college student in 2008, only one in ever 20 voters this year were college-aged students.


Surprisingly, the Democratic tilt of our age group changed very little in the last two years. Democrats won this group in a 58 to 39 percent margin over Republicans, not terribly different than the 62 to 35 percent margin won in 2008. Doing some quick back of math calculations, had youth alone turned out at similar levels as 2008, even accounting for a more Republican leaning voting population, Democrats could have closed the national gap on Tuesday by 1.5-2 percent.


In turn Tuesday’s election was far older, and whiter, than any electorate we’ve seen in years.


As some grain of salt evidence, look at California, where even though Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown won huge victories in what were “expected” close races, Proposition 19 (legalizing marijuana) lost by eight percent, 46 to 54 percent.  In pre-election polling and analysis of the state, of which even I wrote about a few weeks back, youth turnout was expected to run 18 to 20 percent in California, bucking the long-standing trend of youth apathy in Midterm elections. But come Election Day, only 13 percent of the electorate was under the age of 29, effectively ending any chance of passage.  Youth voted in favor of the measure 59-41 percent, and would have secured the adoption of Prop 19 has they turned out expected. 


So why didn’t youth turn out? Honestly, it comes down more to always-existing problems Democrats have winning Midterm elections than anything else.  While Democrats have been able to build strong campaigns and nationwide GOTV strategies during Presidential elections effectively, the same can’t be said for their Midterm successes. Democrats have difficultly driving their core voter bases to the polls (youth, African Americans, Hispanics) to the polls without a national figurehead on the ballot. For instance in 2006, event with Democrats winning a larger national vote margin than Republicans did on Tuesday (a 7.2 percent victory), the Party was only able to pick up 31 seats from Republicans. This, as an aside, is why Republicans did so well in winning over 60 House races on Tuesday, even though they had difficulty defeating even weak Senate Democratic candidates. House races reflect a more grandiose national platform while Senate races allow voters to focus significantly more on the candidates themselves. 


So what can we learn from 2010 going forward, especially as the Republican primary for President begins in the next four months? Unfortunately, not much more than has already been said.  Democrats have to work on perfecting their message to Independent voters as we move towards 2012 (probably more to do with unemployment than anything else), but otherwise with President Obama on the top of the ballot and a stronger Organizing for America GOTV strategy, the core Democratic constituencies (youth and African Americans) will turn out in similar numbers to 2008. And considering Democrats still hold strong leads amongst both demographics, this alone will be enough to secure another four years for the President. 


One Response to Youth Apathy: A Democratic Midterm Nightmare

  1. libhomo says:

    What really got the Democrats in such trouble was governing like Republicans. Obama’s GOP policies sent the message that voting for Democrats makes no difference. It isn’t the message. It’s the policy.

    Also, the corporate media got it wrong when they said that Independent voters switched to the GOP. Most Independent voters lean towards the Democrats or the GOP. Many Democratic leaning independents joined many registered Democrats in staying home, while some more also voted for liberal third parties like the Greens.

    If you want Obama to win in 2012, you need to push him to start listening to Democratic voters and not to Wall St and religious conservatives who will never support him.

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