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Demographics and the millennial vote: Part III

Alexander Heffner presents the third installment of his tour assessing the youth vote on America’s college campuses. Read Part I: In Search of the College Vote, and Part II: Chasing the Dream.

As the presidential contest heads into its final days, Millennials in key battleground states – Ohio, Florida and Virginia particularly – could become a decisive variable in determining the election’s outcome. Just take a look at the graph below:

Swing state youth vote

Swing state youth vote

The graph displays the extent to which newly registered 18 to 29 year olds can tip the balance in the hotly-contested races, that is, if they are engaged enough to vote. Along this campus tour, I continue to find a fairly small sliver of activists compared to the wave of young people enthusiastic for President Obama in 2008. The numbers in recent surveys back up this feeling: The Democratic campaign of 2012 is nowhere near its ’08 showing of 2/3 Millennials for Obama. Instead of clocking in at the mid-60s, President Obama is polling around 55% among twentysomethings; ten or so points less, in most data.

But the slide of momentum for politics isn’t consistent across the age group. Demographics are key to understanding the precise makeup of the young voters in swing-states – and those across the nation – and how their attitudes toward the candidates and issues translate into their level of participation on Election Day. Many of these young voters, especially those on “away campuses” rather than at in-state institutions, have already requested and submitted their absentee ballots.

The Pew Research Center in its 2010 comprehensive survey of the Millennial Generation reported: “Millennials, born after 1980, are more ethnically and racially diverse than older generations, more educated, less likely to be working and slower to settle down. Only about six-in-ten Millennials (61%) are non-Hispanic whites.”

Here are five of the most important related trends that are drastically reshaping the U.S. electoral landscape:

(1) In 2008 young women voted eight percentage points more than young men and are expected to match or exceed that figure in 2012.

(2) Young black Americans voted at a more active rate than 18 to 29 year olds collectively in 2008.

(3) Minority babies now outnumber those of non-Hispanic whites.

(4) Non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of the population by 2045.

(5) Thanks to a demographic shift amongst young people, California, New Mexico, Texas and Hawaii are now majority-minority populations. Georgia is on track to achieve this status by 2025.

In my recent visits to the University of California in Irvine, California and the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, I spoke with of minority and first-generation citizens. Moreover I connected with the critical groups who are the most influential segments of the electorate: Women, Hispanics and blacks. It is no secret on college campuses that young women tend to be more informed; the skewed gender ratio in the audience of many talks I have delivered is anecdotal evidence of this.

However, there is a more salient point that is discernible on these campuses: Demographics are at the core of modern-day youth citizenship and the activism vs. apathy fissure that mark both the college and wider Millennial youth vote. That is to say: When I ask educated young women, Hispanic and black voters, in particular, if they have any intention of sitting this election out, they answer definitively not.

To these young voters, even surrounded by partisan squabbles, the temptation of apathy is simply not an option because politics is a personal necessity. At a 2012 campaign summit that I moderated on the UC Irvine campus, all four of the political leaders on campus came from first generation immigrant families. Whether it is the rising generation of Asian or Indian Americans, voting for these students is more about civic responsibility than a choice or decision. When queried about their political passion, they say it’s the combination of their own desire never to take for granted their citizenship as well as the discipline instilled in the households of their parents.

University of California, IrvineThe leader of the UC Irvine college Democrats, a first-generation citizen from Latin America, has family and friends for whom immigration policy has real consequence. He sees the election like a see-saw, one side representing the Dream Act and a path to education and ultimately citizenship for undocumented Americans and the other standing for the nationalization of the Arizona approach. The racial profiling and economic sanctions, he believes, would endanger both American-born and non-citizen U.S. workers and their families. (Over my college trails to date, black students have expressed similar concern about voter ID legislation that they view as modern-day Jim Crow disenfranchising them and their families.)

In the same breath, two young women on the panel said they were concerned that their reproductive and medical care would be diminished under the socially conservative regime that the Romney-Ryan ticket has promised. While women constitute a huge chunk of the Democratic base and a majority are pro-choice, it is unclear if the Obama-Biden team has effectively electrified women this cycle.

Young progressive women tend to point to choice as their most important political issue, but the jobs crisis is becoming equally significant. These same UC Irvine students said President Obama did not adequately focus on the economy in his first term. In turn, I was left wondering if the economic dimensions of the so-called war on women – including the impact of fair pay in the future – have been undersold by the Obama campaign.

Student walking along the autumn streets at University of Chicago

Student walking along the autumn streets at University of Chicago

In the Windy City – the birthplace of Obama for America as well as the president’s own grassroots organizing career – students at the Harris School were more activist-oriented that those at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school. While several are focused on urban gentrification where Chicago is still a major hotbed of activity, most pointed to activism as “local pockets” as opposed to state or nationally-driven campaigns. The most recent example is the Chicago teachers’ strike, which had mixed results. While the teachers got a small pay raise, they were demonized across the national media. If the quieter decibel on campus and across the city is any indicator, it will be difficult for this year’s first-time black voters in urban centers like Chicago to outperform those from 2008.

My next report will coming after visits to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges in Pennsylvania, will focus on the financial plight of Millennials, the policy prescriptions they support to advance economic renewal – amid the chasm between mobility and inequality – and how that influences their alignment with the candidates and parties. I will also explore youth attitudes toward the related issues of education and health care. How do feel about Obama administration policies like Race to the Top and the Affordable Care Act, and do they believe Governor Romney is offering appealing alternatives.

Alexander Heffner is a journalist and civic educator who has reported extensively on the youth vote and the political engagement of young voters. His writing has appeared in leading newspapers and magazines and his analysis has been featured on nationally broadcast media outlets. He founded and edited SCOOP08 and SCOOP44, the first-ever online national student newspapers covering the 2008 presidential campaign and the first year of the Obama presidency. He also directed a nonprofit initiative for which he designed and taught civic education and journalism in under-served New York City classrooms. Read more about Alexander and his work here.