Every year, around election time, there are always lamentations about the low voting turnout of the American people, and of young people in particular.
When economic conditions are bad, opportunities for success are drying up and the country seems to be in decline, it would make sense for citizens in a free republic to make a change in leadership.
Everything seemed to change in 2008, as young people turned out in higher numbers, overwhelmingly voting for Barack Obama, who was at that time just a young, first-term Democrat Senator from Illinois. Youth support, no matter how small in comparison to the general population, was part of what gave him victory over the unexciting and uncharismatic Republican, John McCain.
In the 2008 presidential election about 22-24 million young voters under 30 turned out to vote, the third highest total since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971. This is a dramatic change from most other years, when the youth voter turnout was essentially a non-factor.
The combination of increased youth participation with over 60 percent of it going to Obama and the Democratic Party made it appear that not only had young people responded to the economic and financial crisis, but may have created a re-alignment toward the liberalism of the Democratic Party for a generation. Former President Bill Clinton’s strategist, James Carville, even wrote a book called 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.
Just a year after Carville’s book came out, Republicans were swept into office in dramatic numbers, taking back the House of Representatives and nearly taking the Senate. The number of youth voters for that midterm election dropped to about 9 million.
So what happened to the permanent Democratic majority and the youth vote?
The first answer is that midterm elections don’t attract as much attention as a presidential election, and without Obama on the ticket many of his core supporters were simply uninterested in coming out to vote for his Democratic allies.
The second answer is that the lack of success of Obama’s agenda in his first few years in office left many young people frustrated. The country remained at war in both Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, the economy remained in the dumpster and most young people were only mildly interested in health care reform as an issue.
The new health care law made insurance companies keep young people on their parents’ plan until the age of 26, but that wasn’t enough to make young people show up to the polls during the next election cycle. One of the reasons that so many individuals are uninsured in America is because young people, healthy and in their prime, simply don’t find a reason for getting health insurance. For young people a solid, fulfilling and well-paying job is much more rewarding than staying under their parent’s wing for a few more years.
The recession, that began in 2008 and created historic highs for youth unemployment, is sapping young people of the thing Americans desire most—independence.
The excitement and optimism from 2008 had almost entirely faded by the 2010 midterm, as the country has lapsed into the doldrums of a poor economy and a dysfunctional government. The youth vote was gone, the change was bad, and the hope had faded.
What’s important to understand is that a political message is important, the messenger is even more important, and the result of the message is the most important factor in winning the hearts and minds of a people in a free society.
The Democrat Party won’t create a permanent majority if the county is upset with their message, and especially the results of their policies. This creates an enormous opening for Republicans, one that they have often struggled to grasp.
Winning over young people is not just about getting them to vote for your party in higher numbers when they are in their teens and early twenties, it’s about convincing them that the party’s platform and principles are sound and just. That kind of victory will usually convince voters to elect members of one party for the rest of their lives.
Values trump election cycles.