Youth Voter Turnout 20%: What Does That Mean?

About one in five young citizens (20% of those between the ages of 18 and 29) voted in this year's election. About nine million young citizens voted. Their turnout rate and sheer number of youth votes is down somewhat from 2006 -- a statistically significant decline but not one of tremendous magnitude.

If you care about youth voting -- as a manifestation of democracy and a bellwether of future participation -- you should take some comfort in the fact that young adults voted at roughly the same rate as usual in a midterm election. You should reject exaggerations about the size of the decline, especially after four consecutive federal elections in which youth turnout rose.

On the other hand, youth turnout is low compared to what we should want in a great democracy. At best, about one in three young adults vote even in the most engaging midterms, and they skew toward the most privileged youth. Arguably, we need a game-changing event or movement to increase turnout to a whole different level. If you were hoping that 2008 was such an event, yesterday's results may be discouraging. It is time to ask whether the millions of young people who were deeply engaged in the 2008 campaign could have been invited to engage more in governance once the election was over. I offered some suggestions about how to do that in a January Huffington Post piece.

If you are excited about the Millennial Generation (those born after 1984), you should stay excited. They are an appealing group, with high levels of volunteering and a record of strong turnout in 2004 and 2008. They are already producing creative and skillful leaders. They are the most diverse generation in American history and they have other important assets, such as skills with media and technology. They certainly care about issues and the future of their country. Significant numbers of them specifically care about political participation and worked round the clock to mobilize their peers.

On the other hand, yesterday's election (with its 20 percent turnout rate) reminds us that generational change cannot explain everything. Participation rises and falls from one election to the next. Members of the same generation vote very differently depending on their state, their race, class, and gender, and their politics. As a whole group, today's young people are not sharply different from their predecessors. The arrival of the Millennials will not restore American democracy, although it provides opportunities.

If you are a Democrat, you should not blame young people. They did turn out at fairly typical rates and they supported Democratic candidates, on the whole. Nationwide, in House races, 56% of young people voted for Democratic candidates and 40% voted for Republican candidates. Republicans did somewhat better than in 2008 but much worse than in 1994, 1998, 2000, and 2002, when they ran neck-and-neck with Democrats for the youth vote. Earlier today, Bill Wimsatt wrote on the Huff Post "for four national elections in a row, young voters continue to be the most progressive segment of the population -- and the most progressive generation on record since exit polling began in 1972."

In virtually every state, young adults were the most Democratic age group. For example, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) won 58% of the under-30 vote but only 44% of seniors. Ron Paul (R) won the Kentucky Senate race easily, but he lost the under-30s by three points. Indiana and Louisiana are exceptions: the Republican Senatorial candidates in those states won the youth vote and performed better with young adults than they did with Gen-Xers (ages 30-44).

If you are a Republican, you are entitled to celebrate the election as a whole, but you should give some thought to youth. They represent the future and they did not vote Republican except in the reddest of red states. Even though some young people lean libertarian, the Kentucky results suggest that libertarian Republican candidates have gained little traction so far with the younger generation. The Tea Party is probably a turnoff for young people--if not because they disagree with its policy positions, then because it doesn't reflect a diverse and future-oriented image of America.

If you are any kind of political leader, you should think hard about the way the last election was played: with a barrage of expensive, negative advertising targeted to specific demographic groups, especially the elderly, and encouraging fear. That style can sometimes win elections but it is no way to engage young Americans.