You can practically write the post-election young voter headlines: “Young people sit out 2012;” “For Obama, large generation is big disappointment;” “Hope and change kids change their minds.”
In 2008, young people across America went to the polls and overwhelmingly voted Barack Obama into office. Millennials, those of us born between 1983 and 2001, the largest, most diverse generation in American history voted for Obama by a 2-1 margin. Now comes the million dollar question: will we do it again?
Unfortunately for youth activists, the media’s portrait of youth involvement as a product of Obama-love has obscured the reality that youth participation had been growing steadily for years. In the 2004 elections, youth participation jumped by 4.3 million over 2000 levels. The turnout increase among 18-29 year-olds was more than double that of any other age group. In the 2006 midterms, young voter turnout grew by 3 percentage points over 2002 levels, twice the turnout increase of older voters. In other words, Obama caught an already breaking wave.
Rather than trumpeting the engagement of a generation that already outnumbers the Baby Boomers, most political analysts wrote their turnout off as puppy-love, enthusiasm unlikely to manifest beyond the 2008 general election.
While a particularly difficult economy for new workers and the lack of a Democratic contest are tamping early voter enthusiasm, new research finds that Millennials are civically active. A recent study from CIRCLE, part of Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, shows that at least three quarters of youth were civically engaged in both 2008 and 2010. Here’s the rub: they didn’t all participate in exactly the same way.
This should come as little surprise. With the ethnic and racial diversity of this generation, naturally comes a variety of experiences. Generational analysis requires an examination of common-denominators, but they do not over-write individual experience or expression. As Peter Levine, the head of CIRCLE recently wrote of Millennials, “Maybe they all have access to Facebook, but in most other respects, their circumstances are far from uniform. Economic inequality (measured as the gap between the top fifth and the bottom fifth of families) is greater than at any time since 1929. Schools are more segregated than they were a quarter of a century ago.”
According to CIRCLE:
- more than 20 percent of young voters were “Broadly Engaged” filling many different leadership roles;
- 18 percent were “Political Specialists” focused on voting and political activism;
- 13 percent were “Talkers” who discuss political issues and communicate online but do no act offline;
- 11 percent were “Donors” who put their money where their mouths are but do little else; and
- 14 percent were “Under-Mobilized” folks who registered to vote in 2010 but did not actually vote or participate.
Add those young Americans up and the bigger picture on Millennial voters begins to come into focus: a vast majority – 77 percent – are interested and involved.
Most campaigns feature a “youth plan” that is meant to capture young voters’ attention — college tours, Twitter hashtags, edgy YouTube videos — you name it. But this report would indicate that the real challenge for campaigns is that this demographic requires more nuance: translating civic interest into political interest for some, taking online interest and turning it into offline action for others.
And for those who – like myself – care about the generation of which we’re apart, those of us who want a seat at the grown up’s table, it’s about persuading our peers that actual voting, regardless of other engagement, is the most powerful currency of all.