The youth vote: Where is the energy from 2008?

Polls show potential for all-time low turnout, but a segment of young voters remains committed to voting

October 23, 2012

The presidential election is two weeks from Tuesday, and there’s been a lot of talk about whether young voters will turn out in big numbers the way they did four years ago. 

National polls suggest a drop in interest among voters under 30. 

“I feel like a lot of the things that were told to me during the campaign were, uh, lies.”
- 25-year-old Nick Dinunzio

“We could be heading toward a turnout that’s in the low 40s and potentially, hopefully not, but potentially as low as what we saw in 1996, which was around 39 percent,” said John Della Volpe, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

Low 40s or even 39 percent? That’s hardly the surge that brought more than half of Illinois’ young voters out in 2008.

Della Volpe’s group last week released its biennial survey of young voters, which focuses on people from 18 to 29.

But I wanted to hear from a specific group of young people—those who voted in a presidential election for the very first time in 2008.

That was me. I remember the electricity. Late nights at the college newspaper. Arguments in bars about who was the better choice.  Regardless of politics, it seemed like everyone on campus was engaged. 

Now, four years later, where do those second time voters—people between 22 and 26—figure in the conversation about young voters? 

The Addison EL stop during rush hour turned out to be a good place to find lots of 22- to 26-year-old Chicagoans.

Here’s what many of them said when I talked with them about this year’s presidential race:

“Oh, I still plan on voting,” said Owen Maggio, 25. “I think it’s important to vote whether you agree or disagree.”

“Last time, I voted for Barack Obama and I plan to vote for Barack Obama again,” Miden Wood, 22 told me.

“(I’m) kinda, kinda excited, ya know, even though the economy is still messed up but he’s still trying and fighting and it takes time,” said Rayle French, 23.

“I’ll be casting a vote against the president for sure,” said Nick Dinunzio, 25. “I won’t just stay home, even though in Illinois, that’s, you know, it’s the same thing.”

Not one of the dozens of second-time voters I talked to said they weren’t going to vote this time around.

Overall, the people in my admittedly small sample say they feel more confident, more informed, and here’s a big one: they say they aren’t just voting this year because “everyone else is.”

Harvard’s Della Volpe says researchers did find distinctions between older and younger segments of “Millennial” voters, as he calls them.

He says younger voters tended to be more conservative, but, “the older Millennial segment, these are folks who remain pretty loyal, in fact, could be, other than African Americans in general, could be and probably are the most loyal of all Obama voters.”

Laura McElroy is one of those loyal older Millennials.

At 21, she dropped out of college for a semester to work on Obama’s 2008 campaign.

This year, at 25, she hasn’t even volunteered—no phone banking, no leafleting. Illinois is a blue state after all, she told me.

“I don’t have a very good answer, except that I have been busy with a lot of other things,” McElroy said.

After graduation, McElroy worked for Democratic candidates in the 2010 midterm elections in Wisconsin, and every single one of them lost, even one of her favorite politicians, Russ Feingold.

“The second that he lost… I mean, for me, that was it, for that night I was like, ‘It’s over, I need to go home and, I don’t know, drink a beer, or a lot of beers,’” McElroy said, recounting that night.

But even that crushing experience doesn’t mean she’s going to stop voting, or even stop participating in a political system that pollsters say young people, in general, think is broken.

“My reaction was not, ‘I don’t want to think about politics anymore.’ It was, ‘How do we make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,’” McElroy said.

And she doesn’t buy the idea that young people are apathetic or uninterested.

“I don’t think that our generation is necessarily apathetic. I don’t think they’re apathetic at all. I don’t think that they’re disillusioned, and I think that probably one of the biggest reasons that we aren’t seeing the same level of youth engagement as we did in 2008 was because, it’s just not as exciting to reelect someone, as it is to elect anyone for the first time and certainly the first African American president for the first time,” McElroy told me.

She doesn’t know it, but McElroy is talking about what some experts say is the subtle difference between “enthusiasm” and “engagement”—the difference between just feeling something, and actually doing something, like voting. 

Peter Levine is with the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, and he’s been studying young voters nationally for years. 

“What I hear mostly is ‘Oh, enthusiasm is down and so that means that young people are not going to vote and are perhaps apathetic,’” Levine said. “I think some of the measures of enthusiasm are down, but (I) would qualify that a little bit. It doesn’t mean people won’t vote. Enthusiasm for the president is down somewhat, but remains pretty high among young people and I think Romney’s got a lot more enthusiasm than McCain had among young people, which could help turnout.”

Levine’s turnout prediction isn’t tied to voters’ enthusiasm for a particular candidate.  He said there’s something else at work here. He points to a wealth of research that shows once people vote, they’re more likely to keep voting year in and year out. 

Back at the Addison EL stop, 25-year-old Nick Dinunzio tells me he’s a registered Republican who voted for Obama in the last election.

“And how do you feel four years later? Four years removed?” I ask.

“I feel like a lot of the things that were told to me during the campaign were, uh, lies,” Dinunzio says.

But he’s not disillusioned or disenfranchised, and he’s actually pretty excited to vote.

Only this time, it’ll be for someone else.

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