In Youth Vote, Turnout is Key

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Growing up in an abusive household in South Carolina, Harold “R.J.” Sloke spent days locked up like a prisoner in his room. Isolated, scared, and forced to miss school, he sought solace in the Bible and in a set of encyclopedias that he read over and over again. That early experience taught him to rely upon two things: Christian morals and independent study, two values he says he continues to hold dear as a young Republican voter.

Voter 1Now a U.S. Army Reservist in the battleground state of Missouri, Sloke, 22, prides himself on doing his own research into political issues. He cares about cutting the national debt, reducing unemployment, supporting pro-life policies, and protecting defense spending. In 2008, he voted for John McCain but wasn’t too unhappy when the presidency went to Barack Obama. “I thought Obama was a good guy who would go by his word,” Sloke said. His vote this year will go to Mitt Romney.

Young voters lean left

By Sloke’s own admission, and according to the Pew Research Center, most of his peers don’t share his conservative views. Polls through mid-September have shown President Obama with a consistent lead among voters between the ages of 18 and 29, despite the disillusionment some young voters say they feel since they came out in droves to elect the country’s first black president.

Young voters have historically turned out in lower numbers than the rest of the population, even at the height of their enthusiasm in 2008, so whether this statistical advantage will help tilt the balance in President Obama’s favor this fall depends in large part on the ability of both presidential campaigns to fire up young supporters, on the efforts of grassroots organizations to get out the minority vote, especially in Latino communities, and on the impact of often-confusing voting laws, such as new photo ID requirements in some states.

Fifty-five percent of all young eligible voters said they “would definitely” or “might” vote for President Obama this election, compared to 42 percent for Mitt Romney, according to a survey of 1,695 people conducted in July by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the most recent independent poll to focus on young adults. That’s about the same level of support for Obama as was evident for this age group at this point in the cycle in 2008, said CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, but also a higher level of support for Romney in July than there was for McCain in 2008.

However, Romney’s negative rating is also much higher among young voters than Obama’s: In the same Tufts survey, more than 52 percent of respondents said they would “definitely not” or “probably not” vote for Romney, while about 40 percent said the same for Obama.

Veronica Motley of Peoria, Ill., a 19-year-old woman who’s entering her sophomore year at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., plans to cast her first vote in a presidential election for Obama. She cares deeply about women’s issues and keeping college affordable through tools like federal Pell grants. If Romney wins, “I really do think it will affect things negatively,” she said.

“They’ll close down Planned Parenthood and make abortion completely illegal,” Motley said about the candidates on the Republican ticket. “They really don’t focus on the poor either, and that really bothers me.” (See sidebar: Women's Health Remains a Hot Issue)

But will they vote?

In Missouri, Sloke has been putting up signs, knocking on doors and calling voters as part of his work as a campaign volunteer for a candidate for state senate. But when he talks to his own friends, many of his white male peers — except for single-issue gun owners — say they’re not going to vote at all.

Researchers and advocates point out that young people are often overlooked by political campaigns because they have historically voted at lower rates than the rest of the population, an omission that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When campaigns reach out to young voters as Obama did in 2008, researchers say, they are likely to respond.

Four years ago, a time of great electoral enthusiasm, a little more than half of all eligible voters under the age of 30 turned out to vote. It was the third-highest turnout for this age group since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, although it still fell short of the 63 percent turnout rate for the general population in 2008. Two-thirds of those young voters chose Obama over McCain, according to exit polls, compared to 53 percent of the general population.

Three and a half years down the road, however, nearly one-third of young people say they have not decided whom to vote for this time, according to the CIRCLE poll conducted in July. And that may not bode well for turnout.

“There’s definitely an enthusiasm gap in terms of the last cycle to this presidential cycle,” said Biko Baker, who heads the nonprofit League of Young Voters in Brooklyn, N.Y. His field workers have been going door to door to register low-income youth in five major urban areas – Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Houston and Portland, Maine.

Young people who are dissatisfied with their choice of candidates or who feel their votes don’t matter — as many low-income, non-college-going young people say they feel, according to a recent Tufts University report — usually just don’t bother to show up to vote.

The midterm elections reflected that flagging enthusiasm. Just 24 percent of young voters turned out in 2010, about half the rate of 2008. Although one factor for the decline was probably disillusionment with the partisan struggles that had overtaken Obama’s first term, Levine points out that participation rates drop across all age groups during off-year elections, since congressional races, particularly those for incumbents, usually involve less campaigning and less voter outreach than presidential races.

In this year’s tight presidential race, turnout among young supporters is critical for both campaigns and a priority for grassroots organizations. Only 58 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they were “definitely likely” to vote this fall, compared to 78 percent of the general electorate, according to a Gallup telephone poll of nearly 31,000 registered voters, including 2,800 young people, conducted May through July.

However, the number of young voters who definitely expect to vote is likely to go up by the election, as youth tend to decide to vote much later in the game, writes Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones: “If history is a guide, young voters should become more likely to say they will definitely vote between now and the fall, as occurred in 2004 and 2008.”

Levine expects young people to vote in larger numbers this year than they did in 2010, but said Democrats face an uphill task getting young voters out at 2008 levels. “I think more of a change would be Republican young people who didn’t bother voting last election and turning out this time, and Democratic youth just not turning out,” Levine said. “Not people turning the ‘D’ to the ‘R,’ but just different people participating.”

McCain attracted a dismal turnout among young people in 2008, Levine said, so it would not be difficult for Romney to improve on that. The turnout for young voters “could get back to where we were in 2008 if the Republicans do a lot better but the Democrats do somewhat worse,” Levine said.

What young voters care about

Back in South Carolina, Sloke entered foster care at the age of 13, changing 25 homes in five years and getting involved with the juvenile justice system. Busy with daily survival, he didn’t have time to think about political party affiliations and assumed, surrounded by Democrats, that he was one, too. He joined the military after he was kicked out of his last foster home at 18. Already a believer in self-sufficiency, he realized his values aligned with the Republican Party.

“A lot of people in the country believe that people are in poverty for a reason, they’re stuck in a stage in their life and they need the help of their government,” Sloke said. “I think anybody in America can grow out of poverty and achieve anything for themselves.” That kind of optimism about the future is characteristic of Sloke’s generation, commonly called the Millennials. But unlike Sloke, the majority of his peers (53 percent) say government should play a bigger, not smaller, role in solving social problems, according to Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, a comprehensive report released in 2010 by the Pew Research Center. (See sidebar: Who are the Millennials?)

Social issues such as gay marriage, abortion rights, immigration and interracial relationships just don’t evoke the kind of visceral opposition from Millennials that is evident in older Americans.

That suggests current public controversies over legislating many of these social issues are likely to age out as Millennials grow older and take more prominent roles in public life. Political analysts repeatedly caution that unless the Republican Party softens its conservative stance on these issues, it may be in danger of fading out of relevance as well.

The biggest issue on the minds of young voters today is unemployment. The jobless rates for young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are at their highest levels since the 1980s, with the July rate — the most recent available by press time — hovering at 17 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s not surprising, then, that more than one-third of the young people surveyed by CIRCLE cited jobs and the economy as their top concern.

For the 42 percent of Millennials without college experience, especially those who live in low-income urban areas, the lack of job opportunities contributes to a sense that whether they vote, regardless things are not going to change around them, according to a CIRCLE study released in August, That’s Not Democracy: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way.

“People say, ‘My vote doesn’t matter, nobody cares,’” said John Richmond, 18, who helped register 52 voters at his high school in Deming, N.M., a town about 30 miles from the Mexican border. About a quarter of his class of 400 students had dropped out of school by the time he graduated, Richmond said.

That sense of futility can be fatal to civic engagement, Levine said. “People from low-income backgrounds feel disconnected and unwelcome in all kinds of institutions and politics, and they’re the first ones to drop out when it comes to something optional like voting.”

Not ‘prisoners of the past’

Just because young voters have historically turned out in smaller numbers does not mean their turnout will always stay below the rest of the population, Levine said. “There’s always the potential that they can vote,” he said. “We know that people are much more likely to vote if they’re asked.”

Young African Americans turned out in record numbers in 2008, Levine explained, not just because their preferred candidate, Obama, was black, but because the Obama campaign put a lot of workers on the ground who campaigned and asked regular people to vote for him. Approaching young voters can mean old-fashioned outreach, like knocking on doors and going up to people on the street, as Lamichiana Baker, 19, has been doing in Milwaukee for the League of Young Voters. “It’s actually quite enjoyable,” she said.

(See sidebar: Latino Voters Offer Untapped Potential).

Studies have shown that young people respond to voter outreach efforts after fewer attempts than older people, said Alexandra Acker-Lyons, director of the Youth Engagement Fund, which commissioned the CIRCLE study of young voters. “A friend asking you to vote is still the No. 1 motivator.”

Increasingly, reaching young people means gaining access to their mobile numbers. Ninety-four percent of young people have cell phones today, according to CIRCLE, making text messages and mobile applications, such as one launched by the National Association of  Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a great way to help youth register, inform them about polling locations, and remind them to vote.

Sloke, who plans to marry next summer, recently completed a 10-week Capitol Hill internship with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) through a program for former foster youth, where he influenced Blunt’s decision to co-sponsor legislation allowing foster kids to retain access to their academic records between placements. Sloke is the father of a toddler, a student at the University of Missouri, and an advocate for foster kids. He’s pulled through his troubled past, and he thinks the country can too — if people turn out to vote.

“In a lot of countries, you don’t get that choice of who your leaders are,” Sloke said. “Here in America, we’re a republic, and you can vote on who your leaders are. Most people don’t see the importance in that.”

Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

Kaukab Jhumra Smith is Youth Today’s Washington, D.C. correspondent.