In the immediate wake of the 2004 presidential election, political pundits let out a unanimous, head-shaking sigh. Despite unprecedented amounts money, mobilization, and hype over the so-called "youth vote," it was initially reported that young people had once again stayed at home. "The youth vote," National Review's Jonah Goldberg smugly declared, "is bunk."
Yet after the dust settled, a closer analysis revealed an 11 percent spike in young voter turnout since the 2000 election — the largest percentage increase of any age demographic and the largest jump in youth voting since the age limit was extended from 18 to 21 in 1972.
Some saw 2004 as a fluke, but in the gubernatorial races of 2005, young people continued to show up to the polls. Youth turnout surged in Virginia (up 15 percent) and New Jersey (up 19 percent), while every other age demographic dropped.
Now that the 2006 results are in, it can be said with certainty that the youth voting wave is a genuine trend. This year, a total of 10 million young voters showed up — 2 million more than in 2002 and the most in 20 years of midterm elections. The percentage increase of young voters (4 percent) was twice that of the general electorate.
For a period of time, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, youth were largely considered to be a swing demographic. Indeed, many surveys showed young people tilting right, especially on the war in Iraq, which they once supported more than any other age group.
Those days appear to be over.
Young people were the only age demographic to go for Kerry in '04 and in this election, they voted more Democratically than any other age group. Young voters chose Democrats over Republicans by a 22 percent margin — far greater than the 8 percent margin of 30-59 year olds and 4 percent margin of voters over 60.
According to Democratic pollster Ivan Frishberg, "Generation Y is a gift to the Democratic party."
The theory goes that once a young voter casts a vote for the same party three times, he'll stick to that party for life. If trends continue in 2008, Generation Y — which will account for more than 25 percent of the voting population within the decade — could be a massive Democratic bloc.
Looking at these figures, it's tempting to say that America's long disengaged youth have finally turned the corner — that political participation is no longer anathema to young people.
The trends are certainly encouraging, but let's put things in perspective: in the end, only 24 percent of young people voted.
When issues like college affordability, alternative energy, and the war in Iraq were on the table — issues that are absolutely vital to the future of America's young — only 24 percent of young people voted.
Again, in an election that could not have directly impacted young people more, over three quarters stayed at home. Forgive me, but I find it hard to celebrate the fact that less than a quarter of my generation gives a damn about voting.
It's worth noting that youth voting was much greater in targeted areas with strong get-out-the-vote efforts. According to Young Voter Strategies, turnout in precincts targeted by the Student PIRGs and other groups increased by 157 percent over 2002 — six times the national average increase of young voters.
But in areas and schools that weren't targeted, such as Villanova University in Pennsylvania (which I visited on Election Day), it was a different story. Nearly every student I interviewed told me that they did not vote. Some did not even know there was an election that day. The few that claimed to have voted couldn't tell me the names of the people they voted for.
The maxim goes, "If you ask them, they will vote." If this is true, the Democrats ought to put massive effort into reaching young voters, because it's clear that those who do bother voting will be much more likely to go Democratic. The challenge is to reach that 76 percent who stayed at home.
But my gut tells me that, in order to truly re-engage this generation, something far beyond simply asking young people to vote has to happen. Young people may be slowly awakening, but the roots of youth disengagement run very deep. We cannot hope to reverse this generational malaise by simply pouring money into youth-friendly ads and peer-to-peer GOTV efforts.
If young people are ever going to be engaged en masse, they need a real spark. For the overwhelming majority of young people, the Iraq War has not been a spark. Exorbitant college costs and massive debt have not been a spark. Global warming has not been a spark. Perhaps that spark won't come, as many have suggested, until we see another military draft. Perhaps that spark won't come until young people have a genuinely inspiring leader to vote for (which, I would argue, we've never had). Or, perhaps that spark won't come until our two-party system is overhauled and young people are enabled to vote for people they actually believe in, rather than settle for the least bad choice.
More young people care than have cared in a long time — and this is great news — but far too many still don't care. And like I said, they won't be convinced to care unless they've got a spark, until politics is made undeniably and unequivocally relevant to their lives.
By Sam Graham-Felsen
Reprinted with permission from The Nation