Today, as Democrats are solemnly tallying up their losses, there’s one inescapable fact about what the midterm electorate looked like: it was overwhelmingly whiter and older than 2008. The questions for President Obama now are what happened to the energetic base of young voters of color who thrusted him to power in 2008? And what will it take to bring them back into his party’s fold before 2012?
According to exit polls’ early tabulation, people under the age of 29 accounted for only 11 percent of voters on Tuesday, a decrease from the 18 percent mark of 2008. More than 20 percent of voters who showed up at the polls this time were over the age of 65, a marked increase from the 15 percent who showed up on Election Day in 2008. These numbers may shift as more data becomes available, but the larger picture is clear: The youth wave of 2008 receded.
Granted, it’s dangerous to compare presidential elections to midterms. Voter turnout is always much lower. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) released a report this morning arguing that exit poll numbers aren’t really that bad, when taken into context. The group estimates that the youth voter turnout in 2010 was only three percentage points lower than in 2006. But to many observers, the numbers still suggest Democrats are widely underestimating the importance of one of its key constituencies.
"My sense is that young people did turn out where there was infrastructure," says Rob "Biko" Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters. Baker noted that the 2012 presidential election begins in March of 2011, and that the youth organizations that helped drive massive numbers of voters in 2008 need to once again be taken seriously.
"We need a bold leadership that inspires young people from both sides of the aisle to fight for our interests," Baker continued. "Without that, we’re gonna lose a whole generation of young people we just activated in 2008."
As I reported last week from Milwaukee, young voters of color were the unsung heroes of the Democratic cause two years ago. An historic 66 percent of voters under the age of 29 supported Obama in 2008. Young African Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in higher numbers than any other ethnic group, and two million more headed to the polls in 2008 than 2004. Two million more young Latino voters headed to the polls in 2008, too, along with over half a million more young Asian voters.
That demographic shift was unprecedented and offered encouraging political potential to progressives broadly and Democrats in particular. In a recent New York Times letter to the editor, political scientist and University of Chicago professor Cathy Cohen urged the party to pay special attention to the black youth vote.
"If the party is able to mobilize these young people, it can build a cadre of committed political activists that can carry its message forward for years to come," Cohen wrote. "Just as the Reagan Revolution embraced people in their 20s who today run the Republican Party, President Obama has the chance to embrace a different group of young people so that they can help shape a transformative political agenda supported by the Democratic Party of the future."
But so far, it seems that party leadership has completely missed that message. And now, Democrats are paying for it.
Some youth voting organizers have called the president out for his seemingly top-down approach. A recent New York Times story, for instance, featured young voters sounding off against Democrats for focusing the heated healthcare debate so intently on older adults, and for limiting Obama’s late campaign outreach to massive campus rallies. That type of approach stifles innovation and creativity, two elements that made 2008 so appealing to a part of the electorate that had long felt alienated from civic life.
"[Obama] made young people feel important, then he got into office and there was no one talking to us," Jessica Kirsner, a 21-year-old college student from Florida, told the Times.
The president’s outreach to African American voters overall also seems to have been lackluster. Though the Democratic National Committee spent an unprecedented $3 million dollars on advertising aimed at African Americans during this year’s midterm elections, at least some of the organizers I met in Milwaukee expressed frustration with being talked at, instead if engaged with.
"The future is yours to shape," President Obama said in an eleventh hour appeal to black radio listeners in Los Angeles on Tuesday. "But if you don’t get involved, then somebody else is going to shape it for you."
Right now, that appears to be exactly what’s happening.