Freewheeling Young Voters Scare Both Parties

Michael Barone

11/9/2009 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

In November 2008, 658,000 Americans under 30 voted in New Jersey and 782,000 did so in Virginia. In November 2009, 212,000 Americans under 30 voted in New Jersey and 198,000 did so in Virginia. In other words, young-voter turnout this year was down two-thirds in New Jersey and three-quarters in Virginia.

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These numbers are extrapolations from exit poll results and should be regarded as approximate and not precise. But they tell a vivid story, and one with scary implications for both Democratic and Republican political strategists.

The scary story for Republicans was plain a year ago. Young voters went 66 percent to 32 percent for Barack Obama, while voters over 30 went for Obama by only 50 percent to 49 percent. Some analysts projected an enduringly Democratic Millennial Generation that would send the Republican Party the way of the Whigs.

But that future obviously didn't arrive last week, and it doesn't seem likely to arrive in November 2010. Young voters cast 441,000 votes for Obama in New Jersey but only 121,000 for Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who brought Obama into the state five times and featured him in his TV ads.

Young voters cast 469,000 votes for Obama in Virginia and provided him with 70 percent of his statewide plurality, but they only cast 87,000 votes for the hapless Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds. Republican Bob McDonnell actually carried the young vote 54 percent to 44 percent.

A drop-off in young turnout is normal in off-year elections. But this drop-off was enormous. Evidently the aura of candidate Obama was a lot more attractive to young Americans than the policies of President Obama and the roughly similar policies of the Democratic candidates in New Jersey and Virginia.

This is a generation accustomed to making its own choices and shaping its own world. They listen to their own iPod playlists, not someone else's Top 40; they construct their own Facebook pages rather than enlisting in the official Elvis Fan Club.

Democrats' policies are not in sync with this mentality. They seek a government-run health care regimen, in which young Americans will be forced to sign up for expensive insurance to subsidize older people with more health problems. They seek to jam employees into labor unions, who will insist on 5,000 pages of work rules and rigid seniority systems.

They have a raft of policies -- higher taxes on high earners and those not enrolled in favored health insurance plans, cap-and-trade legislation that taxes everyone who use electricity -- that discourage job creation and stifle innovation. Freezing things in place may sound good to those who already occupy a comfortable niche, but it does little for the many young people who are currently looking for a job.

That's especially true when they're seeking a job in which they can use their talents creatively and imaginatively to serve society as well as themselves. The full employment economy that prevailed for a quarter of a century until 2008 enabled new workers to find such opportunities. An economy that promises 10 percent unemployment as far as the eye can see -- which is what the Democrats' job-killing policies seem likely to produce -- forces young people to take whatever job they can get, however unappealing, as young people did in the 1930s.

Against this background, the Democrats' relatively liberal policies on cultural issues don't seem to have much appeal, as was plain in Virginia. Certainly not enough to bring many young voters to the polls. Obama posters and T-shirts are no longer selling well, and chants of "hope and change" now seem dated.

That's likely to be a problem for Democrats in 2010, as it was in 2009. But there's a problem for Republicans, too, when the Millennials do turn out again in large numbers, in 2012 or whenever. The challenge for them is to come up with policies that they can argue will enable young Americans to choose their future -- policies that will again produce the bounteous economic growth that provides opportunities for work that can be productive, creative and satisfying.

The House Republicans' alternative to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's chaotically cobbled together health care bill is a start. So are Gov.-elect McDonnell's detailed proposals in Virginia and Gov.-elect Chris Christie's somewhat vaguer proposals in New Jersey.

This year, the Democrats' proposals proved unappealing enough to keep young voters from the polls. But Republicans will need better ideas when they finally do show up.