On the Campus

Emerging Adulthood and Adolescent Life

College Students’ Political (Non)involvement in the 2010 Midterms

Low percentages of young people voted in November 2010. Why?

Midterms are not something college students typically get very excited about. No, I'm not talking about course examinations, but rather the national elections held in between presidential election years for the U.S. House and Senate, state governorships, and other offices. This year's midterm elections, held this past November 2, once again showed low voting participation by 18-29 year-olds, both in the proportion who voted out of all eligible 18-29 year-olds and in this age-group's share of the overall electorate.

As discussed below, there are plausible reasons for why young adults don't vote in large numbers, but also reasons why perhaps their participation should be higher. First, though, I must acknowledge that I'm referring to college-student and young-adult voters pretty much interchangeably, although the two groups only partially overlap. The problem, in part, is that voting data are available mainly by age group. However, as my fellow Psychology Today blogger Barbara Ray notes, "Fully 70% of those under 30 who voted in the 2008 election had attended at least some college."

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Those young people who voted this year backed the Democrats by the healthy margin of 58-42 percent in U.S. House races (aggregated across all districts nationally), according to exit-poll estimates compiled by the New York Times. Assuming that non-voting 18-29 year-olds also would have favored the Democrats, it is easy to see why this age-group's low participation was problematic for the party.

A Times article from shortly before the 2010 midterms suggested that Obama's college-student supporters from 2008 were like a garden, needing continual cultivation. Instead, the article went on, Obama gave college students little attention during the first two years of his presidency until the weeks before the midterms, when his party really needed them.

The president appeared at a number of political rallies this fall on college campuses, including a late-September event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Because Obama comfortably carried Wisconsin, 56-43 percent over John McCain in 2008, but a presidential visit intended to rev up the state's college-town progressive bastion in 2010 failed to prevent major losses by the Democrats (including U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, a liberal favorite), the state seems to be a good one to probe in detail.

Wisconsin-specific exit polls from last month showed 18-24 year-olds to comprise an estimated 7 percent of the state's electorate (with this group only narrowly favoring Feingold 50-49 percent over his GOP opponent Ron Johnson) and voters in the 25-29 age-group to compose another 8 percent (this group, perhaps containing greater numbers of pro-Obama holdovers from 2008, went more heavily for Feingold, 56-44). In 2008, by comparison, 18-29 year-olds constituted 22 percent of Badger State voters, instead of this year's 15 percent.

The above-linked article on the Madison rally quoted Rodd Freitag, a political science professor from the UW's Eau Claire campus, as offering the following analysis: "I think younger voters may be experiencing the frustrations of seeing our political system at work, of not getting everything you want immediately. The euphoria has gone away."

Freitag was not alone in opining about why young adults stayed away from the voting booths. Barbara Ray thinks voting depends heavily on "social trust," a sense that the system is fair and responsive, and that people are all "in this together." Though the recession of the past few years presumably would diminish social trust in all age groups, Ray notes that the damage may be most pronounced "particularly for those with the fewest credentials and least education." In many cases, the latter groups would heavily include the young.

This blog posting from Transitions 2 Adulthood quotes additional reasons for the small youth vote, offered by researcher Connie Flanagan. Young adults lack historical perspective and thus appreciation of the long-term struggles in getting favored legislation passed, for one thing. Second is a reason I find interesting from a life-course/role perspective: "There's nothing like paying taxes or putting your children through school to make politics relevant."

In preparing recently for my Development in Young Adulthood class session on youth political involvement (held shortly after Election Day), I tried to think of issues that might inspire and activate college students and other young adults to vote. One that I came up with is student loan reform, enacted by Congress in March 2010. Not many students in my class seemed familiar with the legislation, although some of the provisions seemed popular once students learned about them. Along with (apparently) insufficient publicity from the White House, one reason students may not be familiar with the student-loan legislation is that much of it doesn't apply until 2014.

Marijuana decriminalization presumably is another issue with the potential to galvanize young voters. Although the pot initiative failed last month in California, there were other signs of the state's 2010 electorate resembling that of 2008 (Democrats swept the major California elective offices this year, as the Golden State seemed totally immune from the national Republican wave).

Lastly, as I wrote about in my Psychology Today piece last month on text-messaging and social media, today's college students are highly tuned into personal communications technology. In theory, this should make students accessible (if not receptive) to political organizing attempts. Thus, there are bases for expecting college students and other young adults to vote in greater numbers than they do (at least in midterm elections). It just hasn't happened.

 

 

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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