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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Obama Has Tough Challenge With Youth Vote

President Obama continues his efforts to increase election enthusiasm among young voters, as Peter Rucker of The Washington Post notes “ . . . stepping up his [Obama’s] effort to convince the young and minority voters who supported him in 2008 to return to the polls this fall . . .” These efforts include new television ads aimed at the young, and a special “youth town hall” to be broadcast on MTV and other networks Thursday afternoon.

Obama is almost 50 himself (he was born in 1961), but it is widely assumed that he was able to capture the imaginations of young voters in his 2008 presidential campaign. He is attempting to re-capture those imaginations this year. Since Obama himself is not on the ballot, his attempts come down to an effort to transfer his personal appeal to Democratic candidates in House and Senate races across the country.

Obama has indeed maintained his disproportionately positive image among younger Americans. Gallup’s latest weekly job approval averages show Obama's job approval among18- to 29-year-olds at 59%, well above his 46% overall average last week (and even further above the anemic 38% job approval rating Obama gets from voters 65 years and older).

But when it comes to increasing turnout among the young, Obama has his work cut out for him. Young voters historically are less likely to be involved in the voting process than their elders. We see no signs so far this year that this traditional pattern has been disrupted.

Let’s look at enthusiasm. Back in March of this year, 19% of 18- to 29-year-old registered voters we interviewed said they were very enthusiastic about voting. That compared to 32% of those 30- to 49-year-olds, and 40% of those 50 years and older. Fast forward to our most recent compilation of data, collected between Sept. 30 and Oct. 10. Now, 23% of 18- to 29-year-olds are very enthusiastic about voting, up slightly. Those aged 30 to 49 years are actually down slightly, to 27% very enthusiastic. But the “very enthusiastic” numbers among those aged 50 to 64 years and 65 years and older have risen to 43% and 49%, respectively.

In other words, 18- to 29-year-olds are still bringing up the rear in terms of voting enthusiasm.

There’s other data. As my colleague Lydia Saad has pointed out, only 8% of the likely voter pool at this point consists of 18- to 29-year-olds, about on par with previous midterm elections. That’s about half of 18- to 29-year-olds’ overall representation in the national adult population. When we move from all national adults to likely voters, in short, the representation of young voters drops in half. Meanwhile the proportion of those 50 years and older increases. Indeed, while Americans 65 years and older are about 20% of the overall national adult population by our estimates, they constitute 27% of likely voters.

Again, this pattern is not unusual. Older people are much more likely in general to vote than are younger people.

As Obama and his advisers know, there are two ways to gain votes in an election, particularly a low-turnout midterm election. First, you change people’s minds -- particularly independent voters who may be wavering between candidates or basically haven’t thought much about the election. Second, you get your already-committed voters out to the polls.

There’s no question -- as I noted above in reference to Obama job approval -- that younger voters already tilt in the Democratic direction. In our latest Sept. 30-Oct. 10 polling, 18- to 29-year-old registered voters swing for the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate by a 55% to 37% margin. That’s not a 100% Democratic orientation, but certainly different than the 47% to 44% Republican tilt among all registered voters.

In other words, for every 10 voters aged 18 to 29 years that come to the polls, about five and a half will vote for the Democratic candidate and four for the Republican candidate.

Of course, those young people who are going to listen to Obama are the Democratically oriented ones to begin with. So -- again -- Obama and his political team’s major issue is simply to get these young people registered and then to vote. So far, the data show that’s going to be a challenge.

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