With Republican control of Congress hanging in the balance, this is a critical election year -- and young women voters (YWVs) could be the deciding factor. Midterm elections traditionally suffer from low voter turnout, and this year turnout numbers are the game.
After the 2000 presidential election, it was widely reported that Gore coulda, shoulda, woulda won had his constituency turned out to vote. The close 2000 race galvanized several get-out-the-vote groups, partisan and non-partisan alike, during the 2004 election cycle, and the results were impressive. Young voter turnout increased by almost 10 percentage points, from 42.3 percent in 2000 to 51.6 percent in 2004, according to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland. And women's groups like Feminist Majority Foundation and Women's Voices. Women Vote. woke up to the potential voting power of young women and began mobilizing voter registration and voting efforts that specifically targeted YWVs.
It worked. In their study, "The 2004 Youth Vote," CIRCLE found that young women in the 18-24 year old category outvoted men by six percentage points, 50 to 44 percent, the largest gender gap in that demographic since 18 year olds became eligible to vote. Further, the turnout rate for young single women (18-24) grew at an astonishing 12 percentage points. If this trend continues, the impact on election outcomes could be decisive, as young women voters tend to skew Democrat. Young Voter Strategies, for example, found that of those 18-29, 43 percent of women identified as Democrat -- compared to 32 percent who identified as Republican -- while only 30 percent of men in this age group identified as Democrat.
Young Voter Strategies also found that in 2004, 52 percent of single young women voted, up from 41 percent in 2000. But if Nadia J. and Anique H. -- two young women who plan to vote this midterm election -- are any indication, candidates may find they have a difficult time engaging this potentially powerful electorate.
Many of the issues that young women identify as important may not be the issues most candidates stress when reaching out to younger voters. For example, an August 2006 study by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Women's Voices. Women Vote. found that the issues resonating with unmarried women were tied to their "economic insecurity" -- such issues as health care, jobs and the price of gas. Echoing this, Nadia, who works in the non-profit sector, cited the war in Iraq, health care and economic inequality as the three most salient issues for her today. Anique, a graduate student at Rutgers University, is disturbed that candidates seem reluctant to discuss anything other than reproductive rights with young women.
Another changing dynamic involves the racial and ethnic make-up of the pool of young voters. While CIRCLE notes that the turnout rates for young African-Americans and Latinos is lower than that of young white voters, in 2004 the turnout rate for women across all racial and ethnic groups rose. And young African American women -- who tend to favor socially progressive policies and identify with the Democrats -- have shown steady increases in their voter turnout.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from the American Idol phenomenon. This young demographic may be new to electoral politics, but many 18 to 29-year-olds regularly cast ballots in national elections and have been doing so for years: they vote for their favorite contestant on one of several popular reality TV shows. Not unlike traditional politics, it's an environment where physical appearance and the cult of personality reigns; but unlike traditional politics, it is a type of engagement based on instant gratification and an active peer/social network. The first party or candidate to build on the power of such cultural interactions for this generation -- and figure out a way to structure campaigns accordingly -- may reap a huge harvest of young voters.
Meanwhile, YWVs already have the potential to be a powerful political voice -- if they show up at the polls on November 7th.