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In 2012, Is Low Youth Turnout A Given?

by Ethan Corey | Amherst College

F Posted in: Election 2012, News and Politics P Posted on: July 23, 2012
romney young voter Image Courtesy of Flickr

Recent polls suggest that American youth are unusually apathetic about the 2012 presidential election. A July 13th Gallup poll found that only 58 percent of 18 to 29 year-old registered voters are planning to vote in this year’s election, down 20 percent from the 2008 election and, by far, the lowest percentage in recent history. And in context, those numbers are not surprising.

Overall, the amount of registered voters who said they are “definitely likely” to vote stands at 78 percent, compared to 85 percent in 2008. Only voters 65 years of age and older reported an increase in their likelihood to vote, with a two percent rise over 2008. In addition, a July 11th Rasmussen Report found that only 48 percent of voters under 40 believe that this election is “Very Important” to their lives, while 74 percent of voters over 40 say the election is that important to them. As if that’s not convincing enough, registration rates among young voters are lagging far behind 2008.

This apathy may stem from the only modest economic recovery following the recession of 2007 and 2008. An April report by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP) found that, out of 20 possible issues, young voters listed jobs as the most important issue for them in this election. With overall unemployment at 8.2 percent and 53 percent of recent college graduate either unemployed or underemployed, the economic crisis has hit American youth especially hard, and there is growing frustration at the slow pace of improvement.

According to that April report, a large portion of youth voters also have low opinions of both President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, as well politicians in general. In addition, only 36 percent of millennials said it was honorable to run for public office, and only 32 percent said they trust the office of president as a public institution.

As Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone, wrote in May, “Obama versus Romney is the worst reality show on TV since the Tila Tequila days; the characters are terrible, there’s no suspense, and the biggest thing is, it lacks both spontaneity and a gross-out factor.” Obama and Romney agree on many issues, and despite their best efforts, neither candidate has shown any major clash in their respective worldviews. The result? An election that simply cannot capture the attention of many young voters. Health care, one of the major issues in the campaign, has been a particular non-starter, since the Affordable Care Act is remarkably similar to the health care reform Romney instituted when he was governor of Massachusetts.

This news could seriously impact Obama’s chances for re-election. In 2008, youth voters came out strong for Obama, providing him with 66 percent support and a 34 point margin over Senator John McCain. Even though many millennials prefer Obama over Romney, it does Obama little good if they don’t vote. The 2010 mid-term elections, which led to the Democrats losing control of the House of Representatives, saw an unusually low youth turnout. Only 24 percent of 18 to 29 year-old registered voters came out to the polls, which some observers have blamed for the Democratic defeat.

To court young voters, both candidates have been discussing issues such as student loans and access to education. This month, Congress extended a cut in interest rates for federally-subsidized Stafford loans, an important goal that President Obama has mentioned frequently on the campaign trail. This strategy, however, may be a nonstarter. The spring IOP report found that only 31 percent of college students thought student loans would significantly impact their financial situations in the next 10 years, and nearly all thought that employment was more important to their lives than student loans.

All of this, however, comes with an important caveat. Historically, excitement for elections increases as the election approaches. As The Daily Caller reported, in June 2004, only 61 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds said they definitely planned to vote but by October, 81 percent said they would turn out. It would not be surprising to see a similar increase this election cycle, but only if both candidates work harder to bring out the youth vote.

Ethan Corey Ethan Corey Ethan is a sophomore at Amherst College, where he is majoring in Spanish and History. Ethan writes for the Amherst Student and in his spare time enjoys hiking, sailing and music.

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