Youth Apathy Threatens to Hurt Obama in 2012

With the campaign season heating up, President Barack Obama is trying to develop a new direction for his administration that will appeal to his base, while Republicans are trying to decide who their candidate will be. Young people are a constituency that will be critical to watch in this election because their participation, or lack thereof, could very well decide the winner in the 2012 presidential election.

Young people played an important role in the 2008 presidential election: Some 66% of voters 18-29 voted for Obama, as compared to 53% of all voters. The vote was skewed to a certain extent by the percent of black voters, 95% of whom voted for the president. Hispanics and whites in this age bracket voted 76% and 54% respectively for Obama. Of particular note is the fact that party affiliation of the group was 45% Democrat and 26% Republican. By contrast, in 2000, the split was approximately even. The 18-29 group did not necessarily win the election for the president, but it did energize Obama’s campaign and motivate older voters.

But 18-29 voters may not be as supportive of Obama in 2012. Although this group did not “win” the election for the Democrats in 2008, a severe drop in support or a rise in apathy could greatly affect the election. A Fox News opinion piece indicates that young people have been hard hit by the financial crisis, much more so than in 2008; the mortgage crisis in that year principally impacted older voters. Student loan debt is expected to exceed $1 trillion by the end of 2011, and with so many young people looking for jobs, the chances of much higher default rates are significantly greater.

In The Hill, it was reported that young people are becoming more dissatisfied with the president. Forty-four percent disapproved of his handling of youth unemployment, while only 31% approved. This year substantive policy positions are more salient than ever; “61% of respondents said they would place higher priority on a candidate’s position on issues and record in office, rather than charisma and likability when they cast their vote for president next year.” A staggering 77% said they were delaying large decisions at this time and 27% were deferring a return to school.

The national unemployment rate was at 9.1% in August. However, the impact on younger people is much greater as the rate among Americans aged 18-24 is 16.4%. Many more are underemployed. This has caused great disillusionment among the youth demographic and could foretell a change in voter preference at worst, or more likely, much lower turnout.

Since young people are growing more dissatisfied with their circumstances, it is imperative that they stay involved in the election process. First and foremost, they should vote. Beyond that, they should select candidates who are sympathetic to their plight, support them enthusiastically at rallies, and volunteer to help in their campaigns.

The Hill article notes that between 2000 and 2008, the rate of the voting age population was increasing dramatically for the first time in 24 years — up from 2.2 million to 3.25 million a year. This sharp upswing in the number of youth voters will have long-term importance to the political scene in America. By 2016, this group will be the largest single voting block in the country. The stakes of claiming this constituency are high next year, as a period of apathy will have a significant impact on the Democratic Party if young people simply choose not to show up on election day.

Photo Credit: Russ Walker

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Sal Bommarito

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