Non-Voters Were the Majority in 2010, Says New Study

Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters.

"It is fair to say that 2010 was the year of older, rich people." That's the conclusion of a new research memo from Project Vote, "An Analysis of Who Voted (and Who Didn’t Vote) in the 2010 Election," by Dr. Lorraine Minnite. It finds that wealthier voters and Americans over the age of 65 surged to the polls in 2010, and increased their support for the Republican party, while young voters and minority voters (who strongly favor Democrats) dropped off at higher rates than in 2006.

Two years ago, African-Americans, lower-income Americans, and young Americans all participated in the 2008 presidential election in decisive numbers, making it the most diverse electorate in history. In 2010, however, these historically underrepresented groups were underrepresented again, as they (in common with most Americans) largely stayed home. Non-voters were the majority in 2010, a fact that "throws cold water on any victor’s claims for a mandate."

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Yearly IPCC climate change documentary, and mobilizing the youth vote

As effective as Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth was in awakening a complacent America to the climate crisis we face, many among us were not sufficiently convinced by his presentation because of three reasons.  The first is that Gore is a politician.  The second is that Gore is not a climate scientist.  And the third is that the complexities of climate change are too great to present in a one-time documentary.

As you know, the most authoritative body on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is comprised of over 3,000 scientists from 154 countries and whose conclusions require the 100 percent consensus of all countries that comprise it.  My suggestion is for someone within our Democratic Party to persuade the IPCC to EVERY YEAR produce and premiere an updated documentary for worldwide public movie theatre distribution.  

This documentary would remind the public about the dangers we face and apprise them of the steady stream of important developments, like James Hansen's 2008 paper concluding that the threshold CO2 number is no longer 450ppm, but 350ppm.

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Our Unexcited Youth

Last year, 23-year-old Rashida Hill watched the presidential debates, visited the college political party meetings and put a Barack Obama bumper sticker on her townhouse door. She voted for Obama because she felt like the election was about "being a part of something."

But on Tuesday, the Virginia Commonwealth University student didn't bother voting in the governor's race because, she said, the candidates didn't give her anything to get excited about.

"The simple fact is, unless you put it in front of somebody, they're really not going to seek it out," Hill said.

Young voters turned out in fewer numbers for Tuesday's elections in both Virginia and New Jersey than they did in 2008 for the presidential election. That's not really a surprise since off-year elections generally generate less excitement. Overall, more than 3 million voters who cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election failed to show up at the polls in either state.

The youth vote, the lack of it, is troubling. In Virginia voters under age 30 accounted for just 10 percent of the electorate on Tuesday, compared with 21 percent in 2008. It was even worse in New Jersey. Young adults ages 18 to 29 compromised only 8 percent of the total New Jersey voter turnout. In 2009, the youth vote comprised 17 percent of New Jersey's electorate.

The importance of getting the young to turn out cannot be overstated. In New Jersey, 66 percent of those under 30 voted for Governor Corzine. Just 25 percent voted for the Republican Chris Christie. In Virginia given an 11 point drop-off and the lack of excitement for the Democrat Creigh Deeds generally, the youth split nearly evenly with Deeds capturing 51 percent to McDonnell's 49 percent.

This is not to blame our poor performance yesterday on the young because there were other factors involved. In Virginia, 15 percent of African Americans turned out compared with 20 percent last year. The bigger factor was both drop-off in the number of independents and their swing to the GOP. Independents made up the smallest part of the electorate turnout in both states - contributing 29 percent of the total vote in Virginia and 28 percent in New Jersey. McDonnell received 62 percent of the independent vote, while Deeds managed only 37 percent. In the Garden State Christie took 58 percent of the independent vote, while Corzine received only 31 percent. This more than anything did Corzine in.

Still, I think this statistic is pretty telling. If the Electoral College vote had been determined by only those 29 or younger, Obama would have trounced McCain 475 to 63. Obama carried this demographic in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota. Clearly, it pays off electorally speaking to engage the young and make them "part of something."

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The young generation may be lost to Republicans

Looking at this graph of party identification by age in the U.S., I was not surprised to find 40-year-olds like me in the best cohort for Republicans. My peers vaguely remember the oil shocks and high inflation of the 1970s, and then came of age during Ronald Reagan's "morning in America." In those days, many young people proudly identified with the Republican Party. As they grew older, lots of them continued to vote that way.

Americans who were growing up during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are much more likely to call themselves Democrats or independents than Republicans. They also voted Democratic by large margins in the 2006 and 2008 general elections. If Republicans can't figure out a way to compete with this group of voters, Democrats will have a built-in advantage for decades.

Fixing this problem won't be easy for the GOP and may even be impossible, for reasons I discuss after the jump.

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The Republicans' problem is what they say, not how they say it

The State Central Committee of the Republican Party of Iowa picked a new party chairman yesterday. The winner was Matt Strawn, a former Congressional staffer best known as part of the group that owns the Iowa Barnstormers arena football team.

I've written more at Bleeding Heartland about the challenges facing Strawn as he takes over the divided Republican Party of Iowa, so I won't go into too much detail about Iowa politics here.

I thought the MyDD community would be interested in Strawn's promise to use technology to improve Republicans' standing with younger voters:

Strawn, 35, noted that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain by 2-1 among young adults in Iowa. He said part of the problem is Republicans have failed to use modern communications methods, such as Twitter and Facebook. People are left with the impression that the party either doesn't know how to use those channels or doesn't care to, he said. "Either way, we're sending a terrible message." [...]

Strawn said at a press conference that he would reach out to all age groups as he seeks to build up party registrations, raise money and recruit strong candidates for office. He vowed to regain the majorities in both houses of the Legislature, win back the governorship and make gains in Congress.

He said Republicans could do all those things without watering down the party's conservative priorities. "If we communicate our beliefs, we can win elections," he said.

There's no question that the Republican Party lost young voters by large margins in 2006 and 2008, and not just in Iowa. This map created by Mike Connery shows that if only voters aged 18-29 had cast ballots for president, John McCain would have won fewer than ten states.

Republicans should be asking themselves why young voters are rejecting their candidates in such large numbers. It wasn't always this way. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the Republican Party did quite well with the 18-30 age group, including college students. In fact, my age cohort is still relatively strong for Republicans. (A chart in this post shows the presidential vote among young Americans for the past 30 years.)

Strawn's answer is that the GOP's failure to fully exploit new technology is "sending a terrible message" to young voters. He won over State Central Committee members in part thanks to a technologically savvy online campaign (a blog with occasional YouTube video postings).

I sincerely hope that Republicans continue to believe that their recent election losses are rooted in communication problems. I think the Republicans' ideology is what turns off young voters. The tendency for Republicans to campaign on "culture war" issues exacerbates this problem, highlighting the topics that make the party seem out of touch to younger voters.

Some Republicans want their candidates to emphasize economic issues more and downplay divisive social issues. Shortly after the election, Doug Gross discussed the Republican Party's problems on Iowa Public Television. Gross worked for Republican Governors Bob Ray and Terry Branstad in the 1970s and 1980s, and he was the Republican nominee for governor against Tom Vilsack in 2002. Gross had this advice for Republican candidates:

What we really have to do is speak to the fundamental issues that Iowans care about which is I'm working hard every day, in many cases a couple of jobs, my wife works as well, we take care of our kids and yet the government is going to increase our taxes, they're going to increase spending and they're going to give that to somebody who is not working.  That kind of message will win for republicans among the people we have and we've gotten away from that.  

Ah yes, the glory days, when Republicans could win by running against "tax and spend" Democrats who supposedly took money away from hard-working Americans and gave it to "welfare queens" and other unemployed ne'er-do-wells.

I am not convinced that this is a winning message anymore. Nationwide exit polling from the most recent election showed that a majority of voters believe government should do more, not less. The same exit poll found Barack Obama won even though most people believed Republican claims that he would raise taxes.

Moreover, rising unemployment is not just an issue for lower-income or blue-collar workers. Layoffs are also hitting groups that have trended toward the Democratic Party in the last decade: suburban dwellers, white-collar professionals and college-educated whites generally. Even in affluent neighborhoods, just about everyone knows someone who has been laid off in the past six months. Government assistance to the unemployed may be more popular now than it was in the 1980s.

Losing your job means losing your health insurance for many Americans, which is particularly scary for those who have "pre-existing conditions." More and more people are delaying routine preventive care and treatment for chronic conditions in this tough economy. Other families have been devastated after a private insurance company denied coverage for expensive, medically necessary procedures.

I believe that the problems with our health care system are another reason that Republican "small government" rhetoric has less salience now than it did 20 years ago.

As I've written before, Republican prospects for a comeback may have less to do with new GOP leadership than with how well the Democrats govern. If Democrats do well, they will keep winning elections. If they screw up, the Republicans may rebound no matter what party leaders do at the RNC or in contested states like Iowa.

On the other hand, if Republicans want to do more than sit back and wait for Democrats to self-destruct, they will need to acknowledge that their problems go beyond communication skills. Many conservative beliefs are outside the American mainstream. I don't think the Republican Party can twitter and YouTube its way out of the hole they're in, especially when it comes to younger voters.

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