Obama Losing Support From the Youth

A recession hitting younger workers hardest, frustration with a slow-to-change Washington after the campaign joyride—young supporters are ditching the president. Samuel P. Jacobs on whether they’ll come around by November’s midterms.

Are the kids still all right with Obama?

In 2008, no age group came out for the freshman senator from Illinois like twentysomethings. They saw a kindred spirit in the candidate who rocked Jay-Z on his iPod and cut a fresh profile among other politicians a decade or three his senior. They rewarded him by coming out to the polls in greater numbers than any other group of young voters in 36 years. But now they’ve cooled on their favorite candidate.

For many of Obama’s most faithful volunteers, the months following the election have been less than a party. “I think it is seen as a letdown,” said one young supporter.

In the presidential elections, the so-called millennial generation voted 2-to-1 for Obama, as the Democratic advantage over Republicans stretched to a margin of 62 percent to 30 percent. Among voters in their twenties, Obama’s approval rating was 73 percent shortly after his January 2009 inauguration. A year later, in February 2010, that number slipped to 57 percent. The bleeding hasn’t stopped: Last week, a poll conducted by Quinnipiac showed the president trailing a generic Republican among 18- to 34-year-olds.

The causes for Obama’s rising deficit among young voters are manifold. For one, an ebbing tide lowers all ships. As Obama’s approval rating sinks with baby boomers, he is unlikely to hold steady among their children.

“You can’t expect that his numbers are going to go down and it’s not going to see some measure across the board,” said Quinnipiac’s Peter A. Brown.

Young voters also are turning on the president because the bleak economy is hitting them hardest. No age group has a tougher time finding a job than teenagers and twentysomethings. If commentators on the left, including some of the most visible, like The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, are correct in arguing that the president’s popularity is a reflection of voters’ sense of the economy and little else, the White House is likely to continue to lose ground with young voters no matter what it does.

As young voters ushered Obama into the White House, so too did he bring many into the political arena for the first time. The distance from the inspiration of the campaign to the messy reality of governing may be turning young voters off.

“In all the polling that we’ve seen and done, there is a frustration with the pace of change in Washington, but they still like him personally,” Heather Smith, director of Rock the Vote, said of Obama. “They want to see change happen faster.”

The Obama doubting shouldn’t just concern the White House. Disappointment with the president will hurt the congressional candidates who relied on Obama’s ability to turn out young voters in 2008. One of the most endangered Democrats is Rep. Tom Perriello, who squeaked out a win in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District by 727 votes in 2008. (A poll last week had the freshman trailing challenger Robert Hurt by 23 points.) Perriello’s district includes the University of Virginia, and his campaign is hoping that raising his profile in Charlottesville can help him keep the seat.

A mash-up of Obama's youth coming out to support him during the campaign.

“I think it would be quixotic to say that we won’t have any dropoff at all. We see our job as trying to close the gap as much as possible,” said Perriello campaign manager Lise Clavel.

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Indeed, no one expects a greater number of young voters to punch ballots in 2010 than in 2008. Traditionally, voters of all ages turn out in fewer numbers, on average 15 percent less, during midterm election years. For those who monitor youth voting, the hope is that this year marks an improvement on 2006, not 2008. Frustration with Washington could put an end to an otherwise promising trend: According to one study, the percentage increase among young voters from 2002—the previous non-presidential year—to 2006 was greater than among any other group. In 2006, 10.8 million young voters pulled the lever, a jump of 2 million from 2002.

But whatever lag in voting occurs, it may be exacerbated by the fact that few candidates this cycle are doing what Obama did so well in 2008—making young voters believe the election is about them.

“It’s like a party,” said Smith of Rock the Vote. “These young people are willing to participate and be active by nature, but they are not going to show up unless they are invited. Candidates have to invite them. Once they do, they are willing to show up.”

Yet for many of Obama’s most faithful volunteers, the young campaign workers who passed out coffee in the Iowa winter and stood on New Hampshire street corners, the months following the election have been less than a party.

“I think it is seen as a letdown,” said Megan Simpson, who volunteered for the Obama campaign and is now working as field director for Reshma Saujani, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New York. “We were all on 100 percent high speed, go-go on the campaign.”

“It is different now,” Simpson said.

Even the greenest of politicos knows that no matter the politics of the present, campaign season is just around the corner. Simpson said her friends from the campaign who have now spread throughout the country, helping other candidates or infiltrating themselves into D.C. think tanks, are ready to spring into action once the White House sets its eyes on 2012.

“The people I worked with on the Obama campaign are absolutely going to come back together,” she said. “If he stays in office for another four years, we can make sure that we get done what we set out to do.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.