© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

With six months until midterm elections, poll finds apathy high for young voters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2010 - One of the most interesting storylines to emerge from the 2008 election was the strong youth voter turnout. Just over half of eligible voters in the 18-to-29 age group cast their ballots two Novembers ago, the third highest rate since the voting age was lowered, according to a report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. In Missouri, about 55 percent of voters under 30 went to the polls; in Illinois, about 51 percent, according to CIRCLE estimates.

Put another way, about 22 million people under the age of 30 voted in 2008, an increase of 2 million people from four years earlier.

Will the momentum continue? It's not looking that way, according to a Gallup poll released Monday showing that many young voters aren’t eager to vote in this year’s midterm election.

In the survey, 23 percent of people ages 18-to-29 say they are “very enthusiastic” about voting in November. Twenty-eight percent say they are “somewhat enthusiastic,” and 47 percent responded that they are “not enthusiastic.” The youngest voters were the most likely of any age group to lack enthusiasm for voting this time around. By comparison, 44 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds said they were “very enthusiastic” about casting ballots.

(The Gallup data is based on tracking from April 1-25, and the poll consisted of phone interviews with a random sample of nearly 5,500 adults.)

Given that the midterm elections are still more than six months out and that there’s a natural tendency for a letdown after an historic election, the poll numbers might not be all that surprising. And there’s certainly a difference between stated interest in an election and the decision to vote once the day comes.

“This is a typical off-year election finding,” Ken Warren, a Saint Louis University political scientist, wrote in an e-mail. "Normally, we expect to see about 14 percent fewer voters voting in off-year elections.”

Added Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis: "Younger voters continue to perceive U.S. elections as a four-year cycle centered on presidential politics. To the extent they are establishing a voting habit, it is more to do so every four years, not every two years. They are more likely to become enthused about celebrities (e.g., Obama) than about policy directions. With very few exceptions, U.S. House and Senate candidates fall far short of celebrity status. As a result, their drop in enthusiasm is not surprising."

In the 2006 midterm election, turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds increased for the second major election in a row, and went up 3 percentage points in 2006 (25 percent) from 2002 (22 percent). In 2009 and 2010 statewide elections, youth turnout was low, compared to the 2006 midterm election.

A Gallup release accompanying the recent poll reminded readers that unenthusiastic young voters are hardly a new phenomenon. Voter turnout among the under-30 set tends to be about half the rate of the oldest age group (about 31 percent compared to about 63 percent), Warren notes. It wasn’t that lopsided in 2008, but older voters still outnumbered younger ones.

Warren said age is not the critical factor in congressional elections. “Despite what voters say in these generic polls, voters still vote for their incumbent U.S. representatives by a very high percentage.”

He said the rate of re-election for House incumbents is around 96 to 97 percent. It’s less for U.S. senators, he said, because they run statewide.

Warren notes that Democrats tend to get hurt in these lower-turnout elections because the most reliable voters tend to be non-minority, older voters, who most often vote Republican.

The young voters surveyed in the Gallup poll were the most likely of any age group to say they’d support a Democratic candidate for Congress. Eighteen- to 29-year-olds favor the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate in their local districts by a 12-point margin, the survey showed. Among all other groups of voters, the Republican candidate has the advantage.

Democrats are well aware of the value of these younger voters, who were a key to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. They are especially crucial in a year when many congressional candidates face an uphill political battle. Obama recently launched an effort to re-energize young people and other voting groups who tend to support Democrats.

Cameron Sullivan, president of the Young Democrats of Missouri, said he isn't surprised by or concerned about the poll results. "Interest in midterm elections for young voters is always down, especially this far in advance. As this election draws closer, I am sure we will see voter enthusiasm increase across the board," he said in an e-mail.

Sullivan said he is confident that young voters will return to the polls in large numbers, even though it isn't a presidential election year.

Jones has his doubts. "It will be a daunting challenge for the Democrats to mobilize them," he said in an e-mail. "Obama can convince them to turn out to vote for Obama.  It is much more difficult for him to persuade them to vote for a congressional candidate."

Another recent politics-related poll is also worth mentioning. A New York Times/CBS survey found that the 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male and older than 45. They were also wealthier and more educated than the general public, the Times article notes.

In other words, young people tend not to be supporters of this movement. Said Warren: "Younger voters are always found to have less income and less education because under-30 people tend to have not finished all their college and have more entry level, less high-paying jobs."