Young people rocked the vote in '08 but many may sit out this one
People voting for the first time in this election were born around 1994.
Remember that year?
We watched O.J. Simpson race down the California highway in his white Ford Bronco. The North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. Kurt Cobain committed suicide. President Bill Clinton was in the second year of his presidency. And “The Lion King” played in movie theaters.
It doesn’t seem that long ago, right? But it’s long enough for a generation of new voters to have been born, educated and now reach eligibility to vote.
But will they?
In polls conducted between January and September of this year, the Pew Research Center found a reported drop in voter registration among young people. Just half of those under 30 were positive that they’d registered to vote. That’s 11 points lower than in 2008, the study reports, and the lowest overall number in 16 years of polling.
“They just aren’t involved,” says Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. “They’re much more inner-directed.”
Civic engagement among young people has always been low, he points out. They’re often in college, living in communities in which they have no stake, paying no property taxes. They’re nomads.
But they got a lot of attention, from both the media and then-candidate Barack Obama, four years ago.
In 2008, young voters between 18 and 29 made up 18 percent of the vote nationally. That’s just one percentage point higher than in 2004, according to CNN exit polls. And the 2008 number is a smaller share than 30-to-44-year-olds, with 29 percent of the vote, and 45-to-64-year-olds, with 37 percent of the vote. But young voters that year voted strongly, at 66 percent, for President Obama, according to CNN.
In Missouri that year, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 21 percent of the vote, with 59 percent choosing Obama.
Normally, an age group doesn’t make up a voting block, Warren says. But with 66 percent of young people nationally voting for Obama, it did. And among that age group, young black voters also showed up. While they made up just 3 percent of the total vote, 95 percent voted for Obama.
“The question is,” Warren says, “will the young people turn out in the same numbers?”
Kurseaan Muhammad and Molly McCann first voted in 2008. He voted for Obama. She voted for Sen. John McCain.
Even though McCain wasn’t McCann’s first choice, “voting was very, very exciting,” she says.
“It was huge,” Muhammad agrees. “Obama being the first black candidate to run for the presidency, I mean everyone, everyone was talking about it. That’s all you heard at school.”
In the four years that have passed, McCann graduated from college and has worked for political campaigns since. She’s currently working as the southeast regional field director for U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, and she serves as director of outreach for St. Louis Young Republicans.
It’s been a tough four years, McCann says. “I’ve seen my family, I’ve seen my friends’ families, just so many people are hurting.”
Republican candidate Mitt Romney isn’t her first pick, she says, but she does think he’s the right candidate for this election. She’s concerned about the economy and, as a Catholic, about religious liberty. (She disagrees with the federal rule Obama announced earlier this year requiring religious-affiliated employers to pay for contraception through health insurance.)
“It’s the clearest sign that he’s attacking everything that Americans really stand for,” she says.
McCann wishes Romney was more strongly pro-life, but she’ll still vote for him and believes his business background can help the economy.
“I think this might be the most exciting year I’ve voted,” she says.
Since 2008, Muhammad, who’s still in school, has had two children, gotten a new job in housekeeping at Washington University and plans to transfer there and study biology in January. Over the summer, he actually thought he’d vote for Romney. Muhammad thought the candidate seemed sincere and caring.
“He just completely flip-flopped,” he says. “I thought that he was a really good guy.”
Muhammad will vote once again for Obama, and he’s excited about it, as he was four years ago. While he’s watched some of the debates, what matters to him is the sense that Obama really cares about the country and its people.
“And I don’t really see that from Mitt Romney.”
Both McCann and Muhammad say they see the same excitement they feel among their peers, but according to one poll, that sentiment isn’t common.
In a national poll of 18-to-29-year-old likely voters, Obama led Romney by 19 percentage points. But only 48 percent of respondents said they were likely to vote. And, the survey found, the advantage there may go to Romney. Sixty-five percent of young voters favoring Romney said they’d definitely vote, while 55 percent voting for Obama said they’d definitely vote.
A millennial future
Pew released a report in 2011 called “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election.”
In it, Pew compared the older generations to the millennials, or young people between 18 and 30. The report found the younger group more racially and ethnically diverse, more likely to vote Democrat and less religious. Fifty-seven percent favor a bigger government with more services, the study reports. Six in 10 favor gay marriage, and 69 percent believe immigrants strengthen our society.
“Most people are pretty socially liberal,” says Keaton Hanson, who graduated from Webster University in May and is now working his first job in marketing. “So where they differ is fiscally.”
McCann, who has lots of friends who are conservative and Libertarian, does see a level of tolerance in her generation that she thinks is different from generations before.
“I think that our generation is just more OK with that stuff,” she says.
Take cohabitation, for instance, she says. Her mom’s generation is not OK with it, but if she sees a friend living with her boyfriend, while McCann doesn’t agree with it and she might try to talk with her friend about it, she won’t judge her for it.
“And a lot of people that I know in the older generation would.”
What does that mean for the future of both parties?
Hanson, who voted for Obama in 2008, thinks maybe the rise of a third party is possible.
“For the Republican Party, it’s a bit of a concern,” says David Kimball, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. “Younger age groups have tended pretty strongly toward the Democrats with their voting.”
And while young people may shift their political views while still young, the party they identify with as they come into adulthood tends to be the party they stay with, he says.
“I would be surprised if that cohort ever moved into the Republican column," says Kimball.
McCann thinks change will come in the Republican Party when her generation steps in and older generations age out.
“The Republican party has some work to do,” she says, adding that it’s up to young Republicans to do that work.
Regardless of how, or even if, they vote, young people do make up a notable portion of the population in the St. Louis metro.
In 2010, according to the census, 18-29-year-olds made up 22 percent of the total population of St. Louis and 28 percent in St. Louis County. Around most of the rest of the metro, those numbers were between 12 and 16 percent.
And after they vote once or twice, Kimball says, voting becomes a habit and people tend to vote again.
In St. Louis, that’s true for Muhammad, McCann and Hanson.
And all three think their friends will vote, too, whether they’re excited or not.
“I don’t know, I guess I’m not as enthusiastic,” Hanson says. “But it was my first time to vote last time, there was a lot more excitement at the time. I’m kind of indifferent.”
For stories about the issues and candidates in this election from St. Louis Public Radio, the Nine Network and the St. Louis Beacon, visit BeyondNovember.org. For a collection of Beacon stories, visit our 2012 election page.