Why the Youth Vote is Inconsistent

Each election year, you hear a lot of noise about why the youth vote is inconsistent. One election cycle it’s up, and then the next it’s down. Meanwhile other age groups are pretty consistent in their voting turnout. For example, senior voting patterns tend to be very predictable and follow a very consistent pattern. It is also true that in elections that are dominated by issues seniors care about, like Social Security and Medicare, you are likely to see a large number of seniors voting to protect their interests. Groups like the AARP also make sure that seniors turn out in record numbers when an election could change their benefits in a negative or positive way.

However, when it comes to the youth vote, the story is different. For example when Barack Obama first run for the Presidency in 2008, there is no question that his candidacy motivated a lot of young people and brought a large number of them into politics and political action and mobilization for the first time. Young people made a big difference in putting Obama in Office. If you look at the chart below, you will see that there was a big bump in youth voter turnout in 2012. The last time that happened was in 1992, when another presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, galvanized the youth into participating in politics and getting involved.

"Youth Vote turnout"

Why did young people turn out in record numbers in 1992 and 2008? There are several reasons. First, the candidates in question, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama represented hope and a fresh start. It also helped that they were both young and vibrant candidates, who easily connected with the youth and the issues important to them. But something interesting happened during the re-election of these two presidents. The youth vote fell, and in the case of Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996, the youth vote fell considerably, from 48.6% in 1992 to 35.6% in 1996. In case of Obama’s reelection, the youth vote fell from 48.5% to 41.2% from 2008 to 2012 respectively. While this was not such a big drop as in the case of Clinton, it was still sizable drop.

One of the reasons political scientists give for this drop is the failure of candidates to address issues important to the youth – unemployment, higher education cost and accessibility, environment and climate change and issues of war and peace. However, Bill Clinton was re-elected during one of the boom times for the U.S. economy, and yet his re-election saw a much steeper drop in the youth vote. There must therefore be other reasons. One can hypothesize that the youth are only interested in change elections. Once they get their change candidate in office, they tend to lose interest in the day to day details of governing, so they have no reason to go back and vote for re-election since they are not close to the issues and therefore have no reason to get involved in the reelection of their candidate. Could it also be that once these change candidates get in office, they fail in keeping in touch with the youth and effectively communicate to them on what they are doing to fix issues that are important to the youth? Whatever the reasons are, there is no doubt that the youth tend to support a change candidate for election in masses and usually drop off during re-election.

For more on this topic, checkout this interesting article from the NY Times comparing voting patterns of baby boomers and millennials. Do you agree with our reasons? Why do you think the youth vote drops off during re-election? What do you think accounts for the low participation of young people in some presidential elections? Please comment below.

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