Fate of 2012 Election Falling Into the Hands of the Tuned-Out Youth Vote

Hey, 20-somethings, occupiers and unemployed college graduates—did you know that the fate of the 2012 presidential election rests in your hands?

That’s right, even though you have correctly concluded that the political and economic system is corrupt to the core and  backsliding on many issues that matter to you—from getting a solid start in your professional life, to having some privacy and being free of government intrusion, to healthcare, to holding greedy institutions accountable—the emerging political landscape is giving you tremendous power: but only if you vote. 

According to John Zogby, a pollster with decades of experience tracking voting trends, the coalition that helped elected Barack Obama in 2008 is slowly coming together this year with one exception: young voters between the ages of 18 and 29. The rest -- African Americans, Latinos, women, and professionals who abhor the GOP’s regressive reproductive health policies -- are slowly lining up behind Obama.

But not so with the final piece of that coalition: young voters. Not only has young voters' support for Obama fallen from 66 percent in 2008 to 46 percent in polls for most of this year, but Zogby said that 5 million young people—every sixth person in this cohort who voted in 2008—are now saying they may not vote at all in 2012.  

“This is the first week that I am imagining that he could actually lose,” Zogby said late last week. “The fly in the ointment for Obama and Democrats are young voters. Young people have gone from being exclusively America’s first global generation to now a subset of them that I call CENGA: college-educated-not-going-anywhere.” 

The 2008 vote was a “perfect political storm” that favored Obama and Democrats, Zogby said. The constituencies that elected Obama were filled with expectations that he was a new type of leader, with a new type of politics, a global vision, and a solution-oriented demeanor. And the Obama campaign, of course, fanned those very expectations.

“You couldn’t help watch Election Night, Grant Park, and shake your head and say, ‘Oh, man, they are going to want this guy to do it all and do it all at once,’” said Zogby. “This was the beginning of the end: even before the inauguration. We did not elect Superman.” 

But since then, Americans of all ages, but especially young people, have faced harsh economic times and been frustrated by the political world’s inability to respond to their issues. During Obama’s first two years, when the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats, Obama let Congress take the lead with its economic stimulus legislation, which included measures that were not compelling enough to prompt tens of millions of Democrats to return to the polls and vote in November 2010. And since the midterms, when the GOP regained control of the House, partisan obstructionism and lobbying has blocked Obama’s efforts on many issues, from ending the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans to holding the greediest actors accountable for the economic turmoil. 

“What the polling shows is that among all voters, but particularly among young voters, there’s no confidence in anything or anybody,” Zogby said. “Small business, technology, yes, but not Democrats, not Republicans, not any of the big names, Boy Scouts, Church, all are traditional familiar institutions and don’t speak to them. They tell us that.”

Those realities sparked the Occupy movement’s fast rise and wide resonance. Moreover, the way that younger people try to solve problems is the opposite of how government works, said Zogby. Lawmaking, creating public policy, seeking justice in the courts, are all plodding incremental processes—not texting and waiting for replies. 

“This is a cohort that solves problems horizontally, not vertically,” he explained. “I am from a generation that is schooled in, ‘Hey, if I got a problem, you take it to the supervisor, who takes it to the manager, and so on.’ They are schooled in if there is a problem, A) it better be solved in the next five hours; and B), I just throw it out to my network and somehow I get a response from people who are just as smart and just as dumb as I am. But [somewhere] out there is a solution.”   

These attitudes are reflected in polls of young people for most of 2012, Zogby said.

“When you see a presidential candidate win 66 percent of a certain group, that is 18- to 29-year-olds in 2008, and today see him struggling to get 45 percent, 46 percent, and at the same time the Republican is actually stuck somewhere in the mid-20s, that means you’ve 16 percent, 17 percent of young people saying they are not sure,” he said. “There is a disillusionment with the party system, the sense that neither side is talking to them.”

These convictions run deep, Zogby said, and is reflected in the popularity of dystopian films like The Hunger Games where the heroine is left to her own devices—and her self-created networks—to survive in a rigged world serving the richest people’s garish tastes. 

Moreover, today’s political frustrations—stalemates on reducing student loan interest rates, little progress on climate change and alternative energy, America’s never-ending overseas wars—has fueled a rising libertarianism, as seen by the support of Ron Paul on campuses, where Paul—not Mitt Romney—is Obama’s biggest rival, Zogby said. 

“When you see Ron Paul or even Gary Johnson getting double digits among young people, part of that is [saying we pick] ‘none of the above,’” he said. “Part of that is just symptomatic of ‘anybody but’ [the current choices]… That is a sense of libertarianism grown out of disbelief. ‘Don’t tell me what to do. You don’t have the high moral ground. Don’t tell me how you are going to solve problems. I don’t believe you. You can’t.'"

The way these trends are converging on the 2012 election is that 5 million disaffected young voters are peppered throughout states where their participation could swing the state from red to blue or vice-versa. The fall election will likely come down to 10,000 votes in New Mexico, Zogby said, or perhaps 50,000 votes in states such as Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, or North Carolina—even in a country of 130 million voters. 

Zogby said there was a cohort of far-right voters in some of these swing states—such as Virginia and North Carolina—that will not support Romney, because he is seen as too moderate on hard-core social conservative issues, and this group may also not vote in November. However, it is hard to predict if this disappearing right-wing voting block would offset what now appears to be a disappearing youth vote, two-thirds of whom would likely support Obama if they voted.

“Obama has got to regenerate a spark of hope among these young people,” Zogby said, adding that the White House, his campaign and the Republicans know this. That is why GOP legislative majorities in many states have adopted new laws making it harder for young people to cast ballots. Tougher voter ID laws, longer residency requirements, fewer early voting options, and more voter registration drive rules are all aimed at discouraging student and first-time voters by complicating the process. 

These dynamics are partly why, for example, the administration last Friday announced that it would stop deporting young people who are not citizens but grew up here and went to schools and universities at their peril—the so-called Dream Act cohort. That move helps fortify Obama’s position among Latinos and younger voters. 

That’s also why the president keeps pushing Congress to do something to lower student loan interest rates. It’s why Obama postponed making a decision on the carbon pollution-creating Keystone Pipeline project from Canada until after the election. And that’s why he will be making many speeches on campuses this fall, Zogby predicted.

This emerging electoral dynamic presents a tremendous opportunity for young occupiers, college-educated-not-going-anywheres, and others under age 30 to demand their agenda be taken seriously. Politics is filled with ironies and contradictions like this. 

Apparently, a sizeable slice of a generation that is now abandoning politics does have this potential influence, Zogby said. 

The question is whether these young people know this, and what they will do about it?


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