USA Today —
September 29, 2011
Obama youth have nowhere
By Laura Vanderkam
registered to vote this year, a mere two
days after turning 18. Up until recently,
President Obama "100% had my vote," he says,
based on such accomplishments as reforming
health care. In the past few months,
however, he has been feeling colder. Not
only does the federal government appear
increasingly dysfunctional (see:
debt-ceiling debate), but as Goodkin-Gold
started college this fall at the University
of Oregon, he realized that he'll graduate
"many thousands of dollars in debt." He also
worries that when that time comes, "I may
have to compete for even minimum-wage jobs."
Consequently, the decline in Obama's
approval rating among young people such as
Goodkin-Gold has GOP strategists salivating.
Could a defection of Millennials provide the
difference that puts a Republican back in
the White House?
Certainly, young people have plenty to gripe
about. But despite some wishful thinking,
the chances that young voters flee into the
arms of the GOP are almost nil, and certain
demographic realities mean that even if
Millennial turnout is lower than its record
level in 2008, that won't necessarily be
fatal to Obama. For all the woes Millennials
face in the Obama economy, they might still
help him keep his job.
Goodkin-Gold, for one, says he's still
"left-leaning" and "it would be hard for
another party to win my vote." And he will
vote: "I'm excited to be part of the
democratic process," he says.
The economy, stupid
Multiply Goodkin-Gold's feelings by millions
of other young people, and you have the
great irony of the 2012 election. Millennial
voters (those ages 18-29) helped put Obama
in the White House in 2008;
their 2-1 ratio for him over John McCain
accounted for 80% of his margin of victory,
according to calculations from Morley
Winograd and Michael Hais, authors of the
new book Millennial Momentum.
Having grown up amid the prosperity of the
1990s, few Millennials suspected they'd
spend their young adulthood mired in the
worst economy in decades. Unemployment for
20- to 24-year-olds is 14.5%. Higher
education costs are soaring. In the
University of California system, for
instance, tuition for the first time
accounts for a higher percentage of
funding than contributions from the state.
Two-thirds of college students
now graduate with debt, averaging
$24,000-plus apiece, in part because money
that could be spent on public services is
being gobbled up by past pension
obligations. All this is deeply
disappointing to Millennials who want their
government to work. As Winograd says, "This
generation is by nature optimistic. They do
believe they're going to change the world
and make it better."
So when the Pew Research Center surveyed
Millennials last year and found that
affiliation dropped from 62% to 54% over
the course of 2009, people took notice.
Obama's approval rating among 18- to
29-year-old voters, likewise,
dropped below 50% this month, according
to Gallup, on the very low end of its range
for the past three years (and down from 75%
at his inauguration).
But here's the problem for the GOP. Even if
Millennials are souring on Obama, they
haven't totally soured on his ideas. The
same Pew report
claimed that "Millennials remain the
most likely of any generation to
self-identify as liberals." A variety of
polls ask people whether they prefer a
bigger government that provides more
services over a smaller government that does
less. Voters ages 18-29 and those older than
30 give diametrically opposed answers to
this, with over half of younger voters
consistently preferring big government. (A
2007 Pew poll put the preference at 67% for
those 18-29 and 41% for 30-plus.)
This isn't just a matter of people becoming
more conservative as they age; even when
they were younger, older voters were less
likely than current young voters are to hold
this view. Talk to young voters and you soon
learn that a chunk of their unhappiness
stems from Obama not being liberal enough.
Given that the entire Republican primary is
being fought over who can shrink government
the fastest, this is unlikely to win over
people who wouldn't mind if their government
And if they don't vote
A more plausible problem for Obama in 2012
is that Millennial voters will stay home.
Voter turnout in 2008 was 51% among this
group, the third highest since 1972. But
again, the challenge for the GOP is that
this wasn't as big an anomaly as the
headlines made it out to be. Youth turnout
was 49% in 2004, for instance, though John
Kerry, the Democratic nominee, didn't have
nearly the same rock star appeal as Obama.
And here's the real headache for
Republicans: Millennials are a demographic
bulge comparable to the Baby Boom in size.
In 2008, only about 40% of Millennials were
old enough to vote. Next year, well over
half will be. Even if turnout is lower,
there are just more of these incredibly
liberal young people floating around,
increasing every year.
To be sure, national poll numbers matter
less than those in individual battleground
states. A very liberal third-party candidate
could wreak havoc like Ralph Nader did in
2000, splitting the Millennial vote. But any
requiems for Obama based solely on
lackluster Millennial support are premature.
It's ironic that for how little Obama has
done to help Millennials, they might help
him stay gainfully employed, but Obama has
had a lot of political luck.
Millennials likely won't be the reason that
changes in 2012.
Laura Vanderkam, author
of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than
You Think, is a member of USA TODAY's
Board of Contributors.