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USA Today    September 29, 2011

 

Obama youth have nowhere to go

By Laura Vanderkam

 

Daniel Goodkin-Gold 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 Democratic Party 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 grew.
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.





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