As the midterm elections approach, it seems that many candidates will be courting college students, a demographic that was solidly caught up in the fervor of President Obama’s 2008 campaign. According to a recent New York Times piece, far fewer twenty-something voters see themselves as Democrats, compared with their party affiliations two years ago. Citing Pew research, Kirk Johnson writes that who college students vote for – and whether they decide to vote at all – may have a profound impact on the Republicans’ ability to retake the House and Senate, and send a powerful message about my generation, which two years ago was extremely politically engaged.
The problem is, I think Johnson is exaggerating both the magnitude of this shift and what it means for millennials. As with most NYT trend stories, the whole article is cast in terms of high drama: economic woes are a large component of students’ grievances, and students battle apathy and anger. Disappointed with Obama, some students think that the Republicans just seem to “care” more.
The Pew Center’s research, which Johnson uses to ground his article, was published last February and shows that support for the Democrats among millennials weakened markedly over the course of 2009. That doesn’t surprise me. I’m about to begin my senior year, and since college started, I’ve watched friends graduate and struggle to find jobs. Understandably, I’m anxious about beginning the process myself, and certainly, I think the government should and could be doing more to end the recession (although extending the Bush tax cuts, as Republicans are proposing, is absolutely the wrong solution).
I’m sure the economy has something to do with this dip in support for the Democrats among young adults. But, anecdotally, I don’t think it’s driving people my age away from the party, because they recognize that even though the Democrats aren’t necessarily doing things right, the Republicans would be far worse. The debates over the tax cuts are illustrating that perfectly.
What Johnson is pointing out is a comedown from one of the most exciting political campaigns in years. Obama had massive support from young adults because of his message of change, and now that he’s ensconced in the political system, it’s harder to get excited about him. He inevitably disappoints, and things move slowly. But the idea that this is a serious bellwether for the way millennials will vote in elections beyond this one is a little absurd.
Most of Johnson’s article focuses on one Colorado university, composed mostly of in-state students. For them, the midterm elections may be more pressing, but for many other students, physical distance makes it harder to get excited about congressional elections. People aren’t talking about their candidates; they’re not on TV; it may be hard to track their progress. And, as a spokesman for the DNC pointed out in Johnson’s article, voters connected to the 2008 election through a person, Obama, rather than a party. This is much harder to do during state elections, when people may not know very much about their candidate’s background, voting record, etc.
I will be interested to see whether college students come out in large numbers for the midterm elections – my guess is that they might not. But I think this has less to do with disappointment with the Democratic party than a sense that midterm elections are inherently less meaningful. Of course, I hope that this isn’t true, and I suspect that if anything, the presence of extreme Tea Party candidates will nudge more young adults to the polls to vote against them. But the idea that this signals larger changes in the way that millennials view politics is off-base. Political enthusiasm ebbs and flows, and this is, after all, just one election. It’s just as likely that if large numbers of extreme Republicans are elected, young adults will defect from the Republican party.
And although Johnson mentions dissatisfaction with health care reform as one catalyst for this supposed trend, I have to say – most people I know are quite happy that they can now stay on their parents’ health insurance.
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