Midterm Scramble for Youth Vote

Support for the Democrats among voters under 30 has plummeted since 2008. Dayo Olopade on the rappers, iPad apps and other frantic efforts to get the kids back in the game by Election Day.

10.03.10 10:56 PM ET

Support for the Democrats among voters under 30 has plummeted since 2008. Dayo Olopade on the rappers, iPad apps, and other frantic efforts to get the kids back in the game by Election Day.

The midterm elections of 2010 are resting on some notoriously shrugged shoulders. Addressing “Gen44”—a special faction of the Democratic National Committee focused on young voters—White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina said Americans under 30 represent the difference between “a disastrous election and a great model like 2006 and 2008.”

Speaking to The Daily Beast afterward, Messina stressed the importance of the demographic that not only helped sweep Barack Obama into the White House, but established the historic Democratic majority that helped him govern so far. “Everything we do is focused on organizing and building out the special relationship with the 15 million people who came out for the first time in 2008.”

This focus on youth has come late in the election season. For most of the midterm campaign, the president has been defending his economic policies and health-care reform legislation, pounding Republican obstructionists or just doing his day job—fighting two wars and the worst recession in 70 years. Last week, the White House got a taste of the heady 2008 magic, when Obama told 26,000 cheering students in Madison, Wisconsin: “Change is going to come for this generation—if we work for it, if we fight for it, if we believe in it. The biggest mistake we could make right now is to let disappointment or frustration lead to apathy and indifference.”

Unfortunately for the Democratic leadership, the battle against youth indifference is harder than it looks: In 2008, two out of every three voters under 30 picked Obama—a level of support unseen since 1972. Today, one-third aren’t even aware that there is a Democratic majority in Congress to defend. And, as Messina pointed out, “If you’re trying to get to the average swing voter, it’s harder than it’s ever been.”

Former Republican National Committee Chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour says this election is not about youth. “Right now, the environment [for Republicans] is better than it was in 1994,” he told a crowd in Washington this week. "Going back to the summer of last year, you saw a lot of people—who were middle class, working class, and tend to be a little on the older side—got mad and got off the sofa and decided for the first time in their life [that] ‘I’m going to do something.’”

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The Democrats in danger of losing control of Congress are hoping the “ yes we can generation” will counter Tea Party enthusiasm. “I don’t think the number of older folks voting goes up or down too much in any midterm election,” Tim Kaine, chairman of the DNC, told me. “But you see 30 percent turnout among young voters, and if you can get it up to 40 percent, that margin is what makes a big difference.”

Both parties have a point. When it comes to “definite” voters, the Republicans have an eight-point advantage. When it comes to “maybes,” the Democrats have a seven-point lead. In this climate, the turnout game is crucial.

“It’s better now than it was before the last election,” Boals says, “but a lot of people I work with are younger and they just don’t care very much.”

To mobilize young people, the Gen44 crowd is trying everything in the playbook. After returning from the Madison rally, the president appeared Thursday with pop artist B.o.B at a ($44, sold out) concert for young Democrats in Washington. Following the Obama campaign’s example, the DNC released an iPhone application and the first ever iPad application in June. The software allows users to make phone calls, register to vote, and canvass neighborhoods with a few simple instructions. A month out from the election that will determine redistricting and possibly flip the House and Senate, the party’s urgency is palpable. Just moments after addressing the Gen44 gathering in Washington, DNC new-media director Natalie Foster blasted a message to every member of the Democrats’ email list: “When the dust settles after Election Night, we'll live with that reality for the next two years,” she said. “It’s time to work.”

Young voters themselves seem to be missing from the picture. At the large, pro-Democratic, union-backed “One Nation” rally on the National Mall this weekend, the attendance skewed heavily toward the boomer generation. While middle-age labor activists and retired workers waved signs calling for Obama to “make jobs, not war,” there were few twentysomethings in sight. Many more are anticipating the October 30 rally hosted by non-politicos Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“I don’t understand why people are so down on Obama,” says Aaron Boals, a 28-year-old who traveled to the “One Nation” rally from Charlotte, North Carolina. “He’s done health-care reform, he ended the Iraq War; he did middle-class tax cuts. All the economic indicators are up—why stop now?” Boals is holding a sign that says: “This Is Not a Tea Party.” On the reverse: “Get out and vote Nov. 2.”

Boals may not be the typical young Democrat. One of the proudest achievements of the Obama campaign was turning perennially red states like North Carolina and Virginia blue. Those gains are threatened by apathy among the young people who voted Democratic. “It’s better now than it was before the last election,” he says, “but a lot of people I work with are younger and they just don’t care very much.”

Tyler Fremd is a voter from recession-rocked Flint, Michigan, who was too young to support Obama in 2008—he’s only 19. Obama won his high school’s mock election handily, but “Now they’re wearing shirts that say ‘show me the change,’ ” he says. “Everyone in the beginning said give him time, but there’s just no progress. There’s not really change.”

Fremd’s family—including older aunts and uncles and both parents—support Democrats this cycle. But he considers himself an independent. “I just don’t like the way he looks at things… we need the jobs, and we’ve been in this war forever,” he says.

Courting young voters like Fremd is particularly tricky for Obama because under-30s have decidedly different priorities than older voters. Democrats tout student-loan and credit-card reform—and the new provision in the health-care bill that allows young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26. “Our message is that hey, you turned out for us in 2008 and we didn’t forget about your issues,” says Kaine. But virtually all of the young voters interviewed were more interested in repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward gay service members, ending the eight-year war in Afghanistan, and addressing climate change and energy issues—all touchy subjects inside the White House.

“I expected him to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and that hasn’t happened. I hoped he’d legalize marijuana, but with my fingers crossed,” says Neil Basu, a college student from New Jersey holding a blue vuvuzela and wearing a matching T-shirt from the American Federation of Teachers. “He hasn’t lived up to expectations, but I think it’s Congress’s fault as well.”

Then again, the Democrats’ lack of organization accounts for at least part of the under-30 set’s enthusiasm gap. One Gen44 participant pleaded with organizers to arm them with a printed list of objectives Obama has accomplished in office. “I know he’s done so much, but I want to be able to show people when I’m talking to undecided [voters],” he said.

“For young people, the key thing is having facts at their fingertips and then having a variety of forums where they can have access to those facts in a concise and straightforward way,” says Roxanne Ryan, another Gen44 attendee who lives in Washington. “So when we talk to our parents, to our boss, when we talk to people with different opinions or when they challenge us we can have that information immediately.”

“One thing about our generation and younger is that we appreciate being right.”

Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.