This is a question that we’re being asked with increasing frequency at CIRCLE. [One person who has asked is Zachary Goldfarb, who published a good story on the topic in the Sunday Washington Post.]
Clearly, youth turnout will be lower than it was in 2004, a presidential election year during which participation of the whole population returned to a level last seen in 1968. Youth contributed more than their share to that increase, but will surely vote at a lower rate in the upcoming congressional elections. After all, many live in completely uncompetitive House districts in states with no Senate races. Thus the relevant comparison is not to 2004 but to the last congressional election (2002) or the last election that followed a big surge in youth turnout (1994).
The comparison to 1994 is interesting because that election was viewed as a test of us Gen-Xers. My generation had turned out in the Bush-Clinton-Perot race of 1992. Would we respond to the call of celebrities like Madonna (who, wrapped only in an American flag, told us, “If you don’t vote, you?re going to get a spankie?), or would we prove to be slackers? We were slackers, voting at a 22% rate in the momentous election that gave Republicans control of the House. For the Millennials, 2004 was a banner year like 1992; and 2006, like 1994, will be viewed as something of a test.
What will happen next November depends on why there was a big surge in 2004. The reasons may include:
1. Generational replacement. The Millennials are different from X-ers in some basic and attractive ways; for example, they are more engaged in their communities, more optimistic, and more trustful of major institutions (other than the press). These qualities might explain higher turnout in ’04 and would help again in ’06.
2. Mobilization: Anecdotal evidence suggests that the parties and interest groups invested a lot of money in 2004 in techniques that work for young voters (such as face-to-face canvassing). They also specifically targeted youth. The level of mobilization will be lower this year, but probably at least as high as it was in 2002. An additional piece of good news is that mobilization in one election still motivates people in the next–as shown by careful experimental studies.
Partisanship: Although young voters skew toward moderates and independents and are still forming their political identities, they are increasingly hostile to the incumbent party. That anger was a motivator in 2004 and might again turn out the youth vote in ’06. However, Republican youth may not turn out unless the GOP works to mobilize them. The net result if Republicans stay home will be a bad year for youth turnout.
Attentiveness: Following the news is a leading indicator, because you must know what’s going on before you can vote. Young people’s news consumption rose sharply after 9/11/01. I see no evidence that it has increased since 2002. In fact, I would guess that it has fallen off.