The White House is officially "hitting the road" in a push to get out the youth vote for the 2010 midterm elections. But, if past elections prove anything it's that the youth vote is fickle and even if the young turned out for candidate Obama in 2008, there's no guarantee of a high turn-out this November.
Tuesday, President Obama will kick off a series of rallies aimed at the 18-24 crowd. The first one is in the college town of Madison, Wisc., a traditionally Democratic and youth oriented hot spot. The event, sponsored by the Democratic National Committee will be simulcast to over 200 other colleges nationwide. But, in a sign of the times, on Monday the White House was still looking for students and others to attend the rally. With the president not on the ballot, experts warn no matter what he does, kids may not vote.
"I doubt there's much Obama can do about this, no matter how hard he campaigns in college communities. Many young people are distracted by school, have to vote absentee (which can be cumbersome), and don't feel that midterm elections are important," says University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato. "All the polls I've seen suggest that young people will once again be Democratic overall-though less so than in 2008 because of the bad economy. However, they are just not going to come anywhere near to their proportion of the 2008 national vote, and that's good news for Republicans."
What's also good news for republicans? The latest polls. In the most recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll conducted September 14-16, 17 percent of voters under the age of 30 said they were "extremely" interested in the upcoming election. Compare that to 46 percent of people aged 46-54 and 34 percent of those over 65 and the White House has some heavy lifting.
Sabato says the youth turnout Obama had in 2008 was "enormous by historical standards," citing the 66 percent of the youth vote Obama carried compared to just 32% by John McCain. But Sabato says no matter how impressive the 66 percent may look, the 18-29 crowd only comprised 17 percent of the total national vote.
Other experts say young voters get excited in a presidential year and that there's generally a fall-off in the midterms, but this year seems more extreme because of how involved they were in the 2008 campaign. "We're seeing a very serious fall-off and Democrats know they need these voters. They're hoping to go back to the same well from 2008," says Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. "That's why they're using the president to speak to these folks and say look, we need you to vote again just as you did two years ago. There's no doubt that there are multiple signs of a drop off in turnout by younger voters, 18-29 year olds. These people were supportive of Barack Obama last time and Democrats need them to go to the polls this time."
Obama himself hosted a conference call for students on Monday ahead of his planned trip and made it clear, voting counts. He told students on the call "Even though this is not as exciting as a presidential election, it's going to make a huge difference in the agenda. Young people need to vote. Democracy is never a one and done proposition," Obama said. "You can't sit it out. You can't suddenly just check in once every ten years or so on an exciting presidential election and then not pay attention during big midterm elections."
As for the president and his former "rock star" status that once attracted the youth vote, experts say that reputation isn't quite finished. "I think it's premature to say that Barack Obama as [a] rock star is over. You don't know what the political environment is going to be like in six months or a year, you don't know what the economy is going to do, what kind of foreign policy we're going to face and the president is going to deal with," says Rothenberg. "Success would remake Barack Obama again just as some disappointment, some failures over the last two years, have remade him since 2008."