Seattle Ben Anderstone will never forget the energy and optimism he felt surrounding Barack Obama’s election in 2008 — the first year Anderstone could vote.
“In the weeks leading up to the election, my Facebook page was just completely lit up with politics and people debating the various positions on issues,” said Anderstone, 20, of Tacoma, Wash. “It was an exciting time.
“But this year,” he said, “I’m just not seeing that. ... Now people are more inclined to talk about how broken and ineffective the system is.”
Young voters flexed their political muscle in 2008, helping put Obama in the White House: Exit polls showed Obama drew 66 percent of voters under 30, compared with just 45 percent of voters 65 and older.
The 2008 election also marked the first time since 1992 that a majority of voting-age Americans under 30 turned out, according to the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
Getting those young voters back to the polls this year is critical for Democrats’ hopes of hanging on to majorities in Congress, particularly in the Senate.
But with the economy struggling, U.S. troops still in Afghanistan and Iraq, domestic issues stalled amid partisan wrangling and no presidential race at the top of the ballot, that won’t be easy.
“It’s not that I’m disappointed in Obama, but things haven’t really improved much,” said David Ruiz, 22, a University of Washington student.
“I’m sure young voters will rally again to back Obama for a second term (in 2012),” Ruiz said. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of attention this year.”
Democrats have cause for concern: The party in power typically loses congressional seats in a midterm election, and Republicans are working to transform widespread anti-government sentiment into support for their candidates.
According to a CNN poll in July, only 27 percent of Democrats were extremely or very enthusiastic about voting this year, compared with 42 percent of Republicans.
Drawing voters to a midterm election is always a challenge. Although the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for grabs, and roughly a third of the Senate — plus legislative seats and decisions on state ballot measures — midterm elections don’t generate the attention presidential elections do.
Consequently, voter turnout always drops in a midterm election. And it falls more dramatically among young voters, according to CIRCLE.
In the most recent cycle, the percentage of American adults under 30 who voted fell from 49 percent in the 2004 presidential election to 26 percent in the 2006 midterms. In that same period, voting among those 30 and older dropped from 68 percent to 54 percent.
College-age Americans move frequently and have fewer connections to established institutions, making them more difficult for campaigns to reach by conventional methods. Young Americans use “snail mail” less, typically don’t own property and often have no listed telephone number.
But once they are recruited, they often bring a high level of energy to a campaign.