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Democrats Look to Reinvigorate Youth Vote for Midterms

September 29, 2010 at 4:44 PM EST
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Young voters only made up 12 percent of the 2006 midterm electorate but voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Judy Woodruff gets three views on the battle for the youth vote and the potential impact in the upcoming elections.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And back to campaign 2010. It was no accident that the president was scheduled to headline a rally for young voters at the University of Wisconsin last night. He will do it again in Columbus, Ohio, in a few weeks, another key college town in a battleground state — 18-to-29-year-olds were a critical component to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.

And, if history is a guide, they are some of the most likely voters to fail to show up at the polls for a midterm election. In 2008, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 18 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls. But, in the 2006 midterm election, young voters only made up 12 percent of the electorate.

And since they voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in both those elections, the potential for a significant drop in their participation has the president out there courting their votes.

Well, to discuss the battle for the youth vote and its potential effect this election season, we are joined by Michael Dimock. He’s associate director for research for the Pew Research Center. Heather Smith, she’s executive director of the group Rock the Vote. And Elizabeth Murphy, she’s editor in chief of The Daily Collegian at Penn State University.

Thank you, all three, for being here. Liz Murphy, I’m going to start with you, because while the president was at — in Wisconsin, Vice President Biden was at Penn State yesterday. Tell us how engaged students seem to be this year, this fall.

ELIZABETH MURPHY, editor in chief, The Daily Collegian: Well, about 1,500 people went out to the event yesterday, and about 200 or 300 were in an overflow room for Joseph Biden.

So, he was all over campus. People were watching for him, looking for the cars coming in and out. It was definitely a sight to see yesterday. I do think, however, it — it might have been an isolated incident.

This time in 2008, you know, we had people coming up to you asking if you were registered to vote once or twice a day walking to class. It’s just not as prevalent in — on campus this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you — but you’re saying they did turn out for the vice president; it’s just not — there’s just not the activity that there was two years ago?

ELIZABETH MURPHY: Correct. Yes. We have a good amount of groups who are very much engaged and energized. But, in — in terms of the midterm election, I’m not sure there’s going to be as much of a fervor or engagement with campus at large.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heather Smith, Rock the Vote, you travel all over the country, looking not only at students on college campuses, but young people in general. What are you seeing about the level of political engagement, interest?

HEATHER SMITH, executive director, Rock the Vote: Well, as Elizabeth was saying, it’s not 2008. You know, this isn’t a presidential election year. You don’t have a national election, the national media, and all the visibility and the tens of millions of dollars that comes with that.

But it’s a midterm. And what we’re — what we’re hearing from young people is that they want to participate. They want to be spoken to. They want the candidates to come to their — to their campuses, to their communities, and address them directly, because, you know, they’re living their lives.

And their lives are very real, and there’s very real issues, and there — there’s an opportunity for leadership and to engage them. But, you know, again, it’s not — it’s not a presidential election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does this level of interest and engagement, Michael Dimock, compare with previous midterm election years?

MICHAEL DIMOCK, associate director for research, Pew Research Center: Right. You have to remember that 2006 was a high-engagement midterm, and it was relatively high among young people as well. Young people told us, for a midterm, they were pretty interested in what was going on. And that was a reflection of their views of the Bush administration, the wars in Iraq and so forth — or Afghanistan — and so forth.

This year, you’re seeing some drop-off from that. Young people, only 30 percent tell us they have given a lot of thought to the election this year. That’s down from the high 30s at a comparable point in ’06. But a bigger difference is that older folks are more engaged this year. They’re up.

And so, if the young folks aren’t rising with that tide, the disparity grows, and they make up a smaller share of the people who show up at voting on Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Liz Murphy, from your perspective, again, Penn State and Pennsylvania, as much as you’re — as you can tell, what are young people talking about? What are the issues on their mind?

ELIZABETH MURPHY: I think the biggest thing that’s being talked about on campus is the job market. You know, we’re paying a lot, thousands of dollars, to go to school for four-years-plus to find a job. No one wants to go back to mom’s basement after grabbing their degree. So, I think that’s something that people really want to see a solution and an answer to. You know, where am I going to get a job after I graduate?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heather Smith, that’s got to be the story across the country.

HEATHER SMITH: Yes, it’s everywhere. It is everywhere. I mean, one in five young people, teenagers and those in their early 20s, are unemployed. Those who went and graduated from college last year, 81 percent of them graduated without jobs. I mean, we’re hearing not just even from, you know, the low-income community, but — but even the middle class and the upper class.

These young people who — there’s this guy Joey I just met in Florida is the varsity soccer captain. He was in all honors classes. He graduated with 3.4 GPA. He volunteered in his community. He did everything right. He graduated and didn’t have a job. It’s a year-and-a-half later.

I mean, to me, this is a bigger problem than what share of the electorate they will make up. It’s, how are we going to address these issues of youth in America, young people in America?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Dimock, pull that information into what you’re seeing in terms of what young people say about what they think about President Obama and what they say about the Democratic Party and the Democratic message.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Right. Well, what’s remarkable about young people is, in many ways, they are taking this brunt of this economic downturn, especially in the jobs situation, yet they remain remarkably resilient. Their level of optimism is far higher than what we see among older folks.

Forty percent tell us they’re satisfied with the state of the nation. That’s double what it is among people 30 and over. And they’re not really rejecting Obama. Most still tell us they approve of Obama. Most think the health care bill was the right thing to do. More tell us that his policies are helping the economy than hurting it.

So this isn’t a disillusionment with Obama that’s — or the Democratic Party that’s driving this. I think it’s just a sense that this election, the case hasn’t been made that this election is really important to younger voters yet. They don’t say it at the same rate that older folks do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Liz Murphy, how would you respond to that, I mean, this — this — how important do you think young people see this election? And how do they respond to the president’s admonition yesterday that young people need to understand it’s important, and, he told — he said in that interview with “Rolling Stone,” inexcusable for people to sit this election out?

ELIZABETH MURPHY: Yes. You know, I think it’s unfortunate, but at least at Penn State’s campus, there isn’t this huge feeling that people need to head out and hit the polls, and, you know, make their voice heard and vote.

In 2008, there were two-hour wait lines to vote. When Obama came to speak, it was like a mini-Woodstock outside of our administration building, just people walking around on the grass and listening, entirely engaged in whatever he was saying, and totally believing that they needed to be heard.

Right now, I don’t know that students are so interested in voting. A gubernatorial candidate, Democratic side, in Pennsylvania, Dan Onorato, went to Penn State. I don’t know how many Penn Staters would actually know that, if you asked them right now. If they did, I’m not sure that they would go out and vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting. And, Heather Smith, what about — what’s your sense of what the reaction would be broadly to this — this scolding, admonition; you have got to get out there; it’s inexcusable not to?

HEATHER SMITH: Well, I think there’s a little bit of excitement that the president is talking to them again, but also a little bit of skepticism, going, where were you for the last two years?

I think people got engaged in ’08, and worked really, really hard because these issues are real. They — they do believe, as a generation, they can change this country and change the world. They have that optimism. And he — he pointed a path forward to do that.

He said, these issues are real, here is what we can do, and here’s how you can participate. And, afterwards, they felt like, where did our leader go, right? What can we do? And so I think that they can be reengaged and reenergized. But someone needs to push that path forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that other large voice out there, Michael Dimock, that we’re hearing this year on the right, the Tea Party? Do we have a sense yet of how that’s resonating or not with young people?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: It’s not resonating that much. It’s not a movement that’s really engaged a lot of young people. It’s predominantly a movement of 50-and-over Americans. And it’s a wide swathe of people in that age range, but it hasn’t really reached among younger voters very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Liz Murphy, at Penn State, hear much discussion about — I mean, from Republicans, number one, but, number two, from the Tea Party in particular?

ELIZABETH MURPHY: Echoing Michael, there’s not much talk on campus from students about the Tea Party movement at all. It’s definitely in the community, but, like he said, it’s more of an older generation.

There is a Republican feeling among campus as well. We have College Republicans, who are very vocal. But, overall, the Tea Party movement really hasn’t taken hold.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heather Smith, sum it up for us. Whether you’re the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the Tea Party, what do you need to do now to get young people excited between now and November 2?

HEATHER SMITH: Yes, there’s a real opportunity. They want to participate. They want to be engaged.

You saw 26,000 people show up in Madison, Wisconsin, last night. That’s 10,000 more than came out to the rally in the exact same place during the 2008 campaign. There’s a real frustration with the issues that are real in their lives.

There’s an opportunity to engage them and make the politics and the politicians really lead them forward on a path that provides real solutions, and is not about excuses, and not about political parties, but about how they can improve their lives. And I think, if you go out and talk to them, they will respond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re hearing it here. Heather Smith with Rock the Vote, Michael Dimock with the Pew Research Center, and Liz Murphy at Penn State, thank you, all three.