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Ten months out, with our major political parties dealing with low approval ratings and the country in distress, this year's midterm elections are shaping up to be as impassioned as 2008's general election. Both parties are hoping to turn their respective messages into outcries that will reach the masses (aka those who vote in the general election and sit out the midterms).
As President Obama stated Sunday, "If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election." The Democrats' stunning loss of the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts Tuesday will only fan the flames, and since midterm-election success depends largely on a party's ability to turn out the base, college-aged voters will be critical this November.
In the aftermath of the 2008 election, pundits speculated whether it would later be seen as a turning-point election (like 1980 and 1932), instituting sustained one-party control and influence. One of the indicators for such an event was the overwhelming support of 18- to 29-year-olds for the Democrats. Against the GOP, Democrats increased their share of young voters from 48 percent in 2000 to 54 percent in 2004, and reached 66 percent with the election of Obama. If the trend continues, or even holds, we could see a third modern political reign.
As my political science professors remind me, midterm elections are primarily base-turnout elections. While some midterms can be transformative national experiences, more often than not, they follow Tip O'Neill's legendary rule that "all politics is local." That is, that elections depend less on national trends than on local issues. Therefore, with no sweeping issue, and with cynicism at perhaps an all-time high, moderates and independents are likely to stay home on election day, leaving the election hinged on whether each party's base shows up to vote. As Thomas Jefferson once said: "We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate."
History suggests that the opposition party always shows up to the polls in force. It is much more effective to motivate those who believe the presiding party's agenda is detrimental to the country, as evidenced by the Tea Party movement that has inserted itself in policy debates with vigor over the past year. With that passionate -- that's one word for it -- Republican response to President Obama and his policies, it looks like a safe bet that Republicans will show up, to some degree, this November. Impassioned support is not at all certain for the Democrats, however. President Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan, along with the watering down of legislation by centrist Democratic senators, has served to temper liberal enthusiasm with the president and the Democratic Party as a whole. According to a December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, among those most interested in the 2010 elections, the GOP holds a 47-percent-to-39-percent edge.
For Democrats, the most important segment of the base to motivate this election is young voters, particularly college-aged voters, because youth are among the party's strongest supporters, but also traditionally the least likely to vote. Before the rally in 2008, the primary story on voters under 30 was their apathy toward elections. If the passion that drove so many to the polls in '08 wavers, Democrats face a challenge.
In a year full of disappointments for progressives, it will be tough to convince them to go out and vote for every, and any, candidate with a "D" next to his or her name. This robust party enthusiasm occurred in 2006 and 2008 and was a big part of the reason Dems won 14 Senate seats (losing zero) and won 56 House seats (while losing five). The overwhelming support Democrats experienced in those years cannot be relied upon in 2010, when complacency may be a factor.
The Democrats do, however, have ways to encourage their young base to participate. Despite a rough first year, Obama is still more popular among young voters than any other age group. Chances are, we will see Obama as a centerpiece to many of this year's Democratic campaigns. (Remember: While the president's approval rating has been hugging 50 percent lately, his favorability rating is still higher; people think better of the man than of the job he is doing at the moment.) With congressional and senatorial races traditionally low on young adults' radar screens, compounded by the fact that mobile college students have a weaker grasp of local issues, the president's appeal will be critical in turning out this demographic.
Obama's senior adviser and top political operative, David Axelrod, has recently acknowledged the importance of getting out irregular voters, including young voters, in the upcoming election. "One of our missions," Axelrod said, "has to be to communicate rigorously with those voters and make the case for why it's important that they come out even when the president isn't on the ballot, and what the consequences are of not doing that."
By visiting college campuses, especially in states with closely watched races, including Nevada, Connecticut, Colorado, Ohio, and New Hampshire, the president could be very effective in helping endangered incumbents and newcomers seeking open seats. On these trips, he should call to mind his party's plans to: aid college students in paying their tuition, an exacerbating problem for people in and just out of college; tout the portion of health care bill which allows children to stay on their parents' plan until the age of 26, which would help ease the burden of recently graduating students; and discuss the cap and trade bill, which aims to minimize carbon dioxide emissions in the future, another concern of young voters.
Also, like everyone else, young people are worried about the economy. College-aged voters are particularly worried about graduating into a devastated job market. Many graduates fear they will never recover from a delayed entry into the workforce. Couple this with the increasingly high debt graduates shoulder and threat of a lost generation appears all too real. Too many young people simply don't have an answer to the question, "What do you do?"
If we see President Obama and his party's candidates address young voters' concerns effectively, thereby mobilizing this midterm-lazy demographic, his administration's plans and his party's agenda will likely hold steady in latter half of his term. Easier said than executed, though. With everything on the administration's plate, it will be tough for the president to find time to dedicate to the these elections. If a new and urgent matter finds its way into the pyramid of our nation's most-pressing issues (Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, national security), Republican odds will be more favorable come fall.
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