Will Young Voters Sink Obama In 2012?
How's this for an anniversary? Three years ago this week, the subprime mortgage market collapsed, and the crisis sent the U.S. economy into a free-fall and a powerful recession.
Now, as the 2012 election approaches, another financial bubble is about to burst, with likely dire consequences for American politics and particularly young voters.
In 2008, when the real estate market blew up, it principally hurt older people who saw the value of their houses go down along with their pension plans. This time, young people — the high-energy voters who turned out in record numbers for Democrats back in '08 — are on the financial firing line. Their response will be key for Democrats hoping to turn back a GOP wave in 2012.
Earlier this year, the total amount of student loan debt owed by Americans surpassed the amount of credit card debt owed by Americans for the first time in history. The total amount of student loan debt is expected to pass the $1 trillion mark by the end of this year.
Now, with so many young people unable to find jobs, the banks and investment funds holding those loans are issuing public alarms about the number of young people set to default. If those dominoes start to fall, they could lead to a double-dip recession.
In 2008, candidate Barack Obama won 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 and Democrats in the Senate and House benefited. According to Census data, 18- to 24-year-olds were the only age group to show a statistically significant increase in voter turnout in 2008. Turnout for every other age group either decreased or stayed the same.
But in June of this year, a poll of young Americans found an astounding 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds disapprove of how Obama has handled youth unemployment, while only 31 percent approve. That discontent is potentially devastating to Democrats.
"I think [the election] is going to be much closer than people realize. The question is not for whom young people will vote, but whether they will bother at all," Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said of the poll she conducted for the youth advocacy group Generation Opportunity.
"And it's not because they are apathetic, but because they are realists and they know what they see, which is high food and fuel prices and massive student loan debt, and what they don't see, which is a well-paying job and a reason to feel optimistic about their futures," she explained.
Race is also a factor here. Young black and Hispanic voters have a close identification with the first president of color. But young white people do not. Pew Research reports that as of the first half of 2011, the Republican advantage among white voters had grown to a 21-point spread, 56 to 35 percent. It was only an 11-percent advantage in '08.
And the biggest shift among white voters has been among those under 30. Democrats held a seven-point advantage among young white voters who proclaimed a party preference in 2008. Now Pew finds Republicans have an 11-point advantage among self-identified young white voters.
And Republicans running for their party's presidential nomination have started reaching out to those young white voters.
During one debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) spoke of high youth unemployment. "We see it this summer. There are 47 percent of African-American youth that are currently without jobs, 36 percent of Hispanic youth. I'm a mom. I've raised five biological kids and 23 foster kids in my home. One thing I know is that kids need jobs."
In fairness, Obama and congressional Democrats did pass a number of laws to help young people. They overhauled the federal student loan program, provided $30 billion in the stimulus bill for college affordability and allowed young people to remain on their parents' insurance plans up to the age of 26 as part of the new healthcare law. And Jehmu Greene, the former president of Rock the Vote, the young political activist group, notes that the president's latest jobs bill includes a summer jobs program for young people and incentives for employers to hire young people.
Alicia Menendez, a Democratic strategist, cautions the GOP that there are more people turning 18 every year. Those young people include more minorities and immigrants, likely Democrats. But this is the generation that is accustomed to instant energy drinks, high-speed Internet access and on-demand television shows.
Even if young people find a way to repay their loans, their high level of under- and unemployment is an ongoing threat to Democrats. "Things like buying a home, starting a family, starting a business, saving for their own kids' education may not be options for people who are paying off a lot of student debt," Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, recently told The New York Times.
If those young voters stay home on Election Day, they will be ceding the election to seniors at the heart of the Tea Party — no friends to Democrats.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July. This column originally appeared in TheHill.com.