CHARISMATIC LEADERS AND TIDAL shifts in public policy have always shaped the party allegiance and policy preferences of generations that come of age at critical moments. After enduring the Depression, the Greatest Generation developed a commitment to Social Security and Medicare and to a Democratic Party that delivered those programs. Conversely, people who first voted during the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan's anti-welfare and pro-warfare rhetoric was reshaping the political terrain, remain more Republican today than voters both older and younger.
2008 presents progressives with a similar mobilizing opportunity. The bumbling of the Bush administration, the corruption of the recent Republican Congress, and the economic insecurity of the post-industrial information economy has led young voters to reject the Republican Party in droves. "It's a Democratic-leaning generation at the moment," says nonpartisan pollster Scott Rasmussen.
Upon ascending to their leadership roles, one of the first things Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did was to begin youth outreach programs in the hopes of gaining long- and short-term political advantage. Meanwhile, according to youth-vote experts, the Republicans have been surprisingly complacent about young voters. Ian Rowe, vice president of strategic partnerships and public affairs at MTV, who previously worked in the Bush administration, says, "The Democrats have just been doing more aggressive outreach so far." And Jane Fleming Kleeb, executive director of Young Voter PAC, which works with Democratic candidates to engage young people, wrote in an e-mail, "It is fascinating to me how much the right has let their youth outreach go by the wayside."
In 2004 and 2006, favorable demographic trends, combined with some modest policy proposals and merely not being the Republicans, was good enough for the Democrats to carry the youth vote. And it may be so again this year. Fleming Kleeb predicts, "Reagan won with 59 percent of the youth vote, and today [Republicans] will be lucky to get 40 percent in the general election." But a robust embrace by Democrats of the concerns of young Americans would achieve even more for their party.
Young voters are becoming more engaged as well as more inclined to support Democrats. In 2004 voters younger than 30 were the only age demographic carried by John Kerry, and he did so by nine points, according to exit polls, compared to A1 Gore's one-point advantage among that age group in 2000. In the 2006 midterm elections the Democrats did better among young people than among the general population. Democrats carried the youth vote by 20 points in House races and 27 points in Senate races, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
Between 2000 and 2004 turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds jumped from 40 percent to 49 percent of eligible voters, according to CIRCLE. And in the 2006 midterms it was 24 percent, up from 21 percent in 2002. The share of the electorate under age 30 increased from 11 percent to 13 percent between 2002 and 2006.
However, turnout percentages among young people still lag behind older population groups. To reshape the political land scape for years to come, Democrats would need to articulate a broad vision and set of policies that would redefine young Americans' relationship with government.
THANKS TO THE BABY BOOM ECHO! THERE are 43 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. And there are plenty examples of specific races where young people may have tipped the balance in 2006. In the Connecticut 2nd District, where Democrat Joe Courtney unseated Republican Rob Simmons by just over 100 votes, Courtney promised to make college affordability a top priority. Not coincidentally, in 2006 turnout increased at the University of Connecticut, which is in the 2nd district. In November, Courtney sponsored the Accessing College through Comprehensive Early Outreach and State Partnerships Act, which would help low-income students attend college. …