Getting young voters back to the polls this year is critical for Democrats' hopes of hanging on to majorities in Congress. But with the economy struggling, U.S. troops still in Afghanistan and Iraq, domestic issues stalled amid partisan wrangling, and no presidential race at the top of the ballot, that won't be easy.
Ben Anderstone will never forget the energy and optimism he felt surrounding President Obama’s election in 2008 — the first year Anderstone could vote.
“In the weeks leading up to the election, my Facebook page was just completely lit up with politics and people debating the various positions on issues,” said Anderstone, 20, of Tacoma. “It was an exciting time.
“But this year,” he said, “I’m just not seeing that. … Now people are more inclined to talk about how broken and ineffective the system is.”
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Young voters flexed their political muscle in 2008, helping put Obama in the White House: Exit polls showed Obama drew 66 percent of voters under 30, compared with just 45 percent of voters 65 and older.
The 2008 election also marked the first time since 1992 that a majority of voting-age Americans under 30 turned out, according to the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
Getting those young voters back to the polls this year is critical for Democrats’ hopes of hanging on to majorities in Congress, particularly in the Senate.
But with the economy struggling, U.S. troops still in Afghanistan and Iraq, domestic issues stalled amid partisan wrangling, and no presidential race at the top of the ballot, that won’t be easy.
“It’s not that I’m disappointed in Obama, but things haven’t really improved much,” said David Ruiz, 22, a Capitol Hill resident and University of Washington student.
“I’m sure young voters will rally again to back Obama for a second term (in 2012),” Ruiz said. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of attention this year.”
Democrats have cause for concern: The party in power typically loses congressional seats in a midterm election, and Republicans are working to transform widespread anti-government sentiment into support for their candidates.
According to a CNN poll in July, only 27 percent of Democrats were extremely or very enthusiastic about voting this year, compared with 42 percent of Republicans.
To connect with young voters, campaigns and candidates of both parties are using online social-networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, which paid dividends for the Obama campaign.
Republican activists like to point out that on Facebook, GOP Senate candidate Dino Rossi has nearly 35,000 followers — more than twice the number listed for incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
Lower turnout normal
Drawing voters to a midterm election is always a challenge. Although the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for grabs, and roughly a third of the Senate — plus legislative seats and decisions on state ballot measures — midterm elections don’t generate the attention presidential elections do.
Consequently, voter turnout always drops in a midterm election. And it falls more dramatically among young voters, according to CIRCLE.
In the most recent cycle, the percentage of American adults under 30 who voted fell from 49 percent in the 2004 presidential election to 26 percent in the 2006 midterms. In that same period, voting among those 30 and older dropped from 68 percent to 54 percent.
Heidi Hunt, 20, another first-time voter in 2008, is working to combat that trend. As a “summer fellow” with the nonprofit Washington Bus, she helped get 1,700 young people at last month’s Capitol Hill Block Party to write postcards to themselves, which will be mailed to them in October as reminders to vote.
“Young people care about what’s going on, if you can get the message out to them,” Hunt said.
For Hunt herself, voting has been automatic. “I think on the morning of my 18th birthday I got online and registered. It was just one of those coming-of-age things that I was excited about.”
Harder to engage
College-age Americans move frequently and have fewer connections to established institutions, making them more difficult for campaigns to reach by conventional methods. Young Americans use “snail mail” less, typically don’t own property and often have no listed telephone number.
But once they are recruited, they often bring a high level of energy to a campaign.
Stephen Robinson, 21, of Gig Harbor, cast his first presidential vote in 2008.
That fall, while attending Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Robinson was so captivated by the possibility of an Obama presidency that he hopped a campaign bus every weekend, hitting the road to stump for Obama and other Democrats.
“With the Obama campaign it was unique,” Robinson said. “We felt it was our opportunity as young people to change the face of American politics. I don’t sense that young voters feel they have that same connection or influence this year.”
Anderstone, of Tacoma, who worked on the successful primary-election campaign of Democrat Laurie Jinkins in the 27th Legislative District, said the bitterness he’s heard on the campaign trail isn’t directed at the president in particular, but at politics in general.
GOP push on campus
Justin Bryant, of Seattle, also cast his first presidential vote in 2008 — for Republican John McCain. He has since become increasingly active in Republican politics and last year was president of University of Washington College Republicans.
“We’re seeing more students stand up and say, ‘I’m a Republican and I don’t like what’s going on,’ ” said Bryant, 22. “Even on a liberal campus like UW, we still have a huge chunk of Republicans who want to get involved.”
As fall classes start, UW Republicans will be bringing candidates to campus and encouraging students to register, vote and help out in Republican campaigns.
Disenchantment with Obama is helping recruit young Republican voters, said Lisa Shin, 30, executive director of the King County Republican Party. “Kids are graduating from college and there are no jobs out there for them. So it has started to affect them personally.”
Democrats also have been making their pitch, working concerts, festivals and other places young people gather, circulating pledge cards on which voters agree to help promote the Obama agenda by voting this fall.
“Just because everything isn’t perfect doesn’t mean a tremendous amount of progress hasn’t been made,” said Alex Hendrickson, state youth-vote director for Organizing For America, a successor to the Obama For America campaign committee.
Hendrickson said issues that resonate with young voters include the increased availability of student loans and provisions of the health-care law that allow young adults up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance policies.
As colleges begin fall terms, Democratic activists will be gearing up events such as “dorm storms” — door-to-door registration and campaign drives, said Hendrickson, 33.
The 2010 election will have its own crop of first-time voters, such as Stacy Buell, 18, of Sammamish, who also has worked with the Washington Bus’s efforts to reach young voters and develop new leaders.
Buell isn’t jaded by political disappointment, but enthused about the potential power members of her generation have, whatever their political outlook.
“We want to get our message out about how awesome it is to vote,” she said. “(Turnout) isn’t going to be as high as the presidential election, but we’re not going to just disappear into the shadows.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org