This week, young people proved once again that they are a powerful force for political change. For example, 18- to 30-year-olds made up the largest margin of support for President Barack Obama in four key swing states, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement (CIRCLE).
For weeks we heard from pundits and Republican operatives that the Romney campaign was going after young voters. Certainly Karl Rove’s organization Crossroads Generation coordinated significant outreach to young people, and the Romney campaign never conceded the President’s popularity with the Millennial Generation. But, once more, young voters came home to democratic candidates and progressive ideologies and did so in significant numbers.
CIRCLE is reporting that 22 to 23 million young voters voted. That’s half of the entire 18- to 30-year-old demographic! Moreover, young voters made up a higher share (19 percent) of the overall electorate this year than did voters over 65 years of age (16 percent). What else can we expect from the largest generation in history?
But to create a solid generation of Millennial progressives, Democrats need to take two critical steps. First, Democrats need to include Millennials in developing and supporting progressive policies. And second, need to dramatically improve efforts to meaningfully engage young adults in building grassroots political strength and leadership, far beyond the current paradigm.
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One of the great political failures of the Obama Administration’s first term was in not effectively communicating either the President’s policy agenda or his successes to the electorate. The President himself said in a speech at the University of Virginia last spring that he should have talked to the American people a lot more about what he was doing when he was doing it. For example, after a number of members of Congress stuck their collective necks out to support passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the President did little to stop the Tea Party’s Summer of 2009 misinformation and intimidation campaign, which devoured moderate Republican and Democratic members across the country.
The only demographic group that fully supported the ACA was the Millennial Generation. Yet at no point were young people brought in by the White House to help evangelize this policy to peers and parents. And the Administration never enlisted young people around the country in supporting the members of Congress who helped ensure passage of the ACA. In 2010, youth voted in similar numbers to 2006, but it wasn’t nearly the extent to which they vote in Presidential races. That mixed with a conservative electorate resulted in the Tea Party Caucus. That could have been avoided with proper outreach.
The lesson here is to learn from the mistakes of 2010 by not allowing this to happen again in 2014. The White House must communicate to young people about issues beyond just education. Yes, college affordability is critically important, but we are more than a single issue voting bloc and some of us have moved beyond college. Young adults have a huge stake in veterans affairs since those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are our peers. We care about small businesses because we are entrepreneurial and eager to take our ideas to the market place. We care about family planning, because as it turns out babies are expensive, and when you’re first starting out it’s difficult to afford to start a family too, and some of us want to delay childbearing to first achieve other life goals.
Every policy discussion must include a young person at the table, because our perspective is one that is rarely offered by Beltway insiders. But much more than that, the President must leave Washington and come to us. Not at another public university campus, but at community colleges and trade schools or even creative tech companies outside of Silicon Valley.
The second problem is a political one. The Republican Party is making a play for the heart and soul of young voters because they recognize the power we hold over the long term. Whether it’s Karl Rove or the Pete Peterson Foundation investing in persuading young people to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, conservatives are spending a lot of partisan- and issues-based money to connect with young people. Democrats are not doing these things. A lot of Democratic money goes toward non-partisan youth voter registration efforts, and even more money is spent on developing a broad understanding of “civic engagement” efforts, and on go-nowhere white papers that college students can research and present in an academic setting. These things don’t move votes. They don’t decide issues. They don’t elect Democrats to office.
Ignoring the power of the Millennial Generation and its potential in electing democrats and progressives to office is like ignoring a piece of my momma’s chocolate cream pie at Thanksgiving. It’s a big mistake. The more young voters are ignored, the more Democrats will end up having to compromise principles and values to garner conservative votes. Think about what that does to our policy.
And know this: It doesn’t have to be that way.