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Why young Americans don't vote

May 29, 2014, at 9:45 AM
 

In a new episode of Political Wires podcast, we were joined by John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard Universitys Institute of Politics, for a fascinating discussion of young voters and their declining trust in institutions of all types.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Young people are losing faith in their institutions, including government. That was a key finding of the most recent Harvard University Institute of Politics poll of younger millennials — those between 18 and 29 years old. "We saw less interest, less participation, and less trust in almost every single institution that we track," Della Volpe said. When it comes to government, he noted that trust in the presidency, the military, and Supreme Court among Americans between 18 and 29 had dropped four to seven points each. The military even lost majority level of trust for the first time in the polls history. And the percentages of respondents saying politicians are selfish, that they don't share the same priorities and that political involvement generally yields little tangible benefit keep rising.

2. These millennials do still care deeply, however, about helping their communities. "I don't want to say that all young people believe in activist government, but...I think they would like to see more engagement and more action in Washington, D.C., and capitals around the country," Della Volpe said. But young millennials increasingly think government isn't able to take action on society's most daunting problems, and especially not on issues that young people care about, such as jobs/economy and student debt. Youngsters also seem to view community service as a more efficient way to make a difference, even a small one, since it removes the institutional middlemen and lets young people tackle smaller challenges. For example, young people increasingly may feel that it's "easier, more tangible to teach someone how to read, teach someone a math problem…than to deal with issues related to poverty," Della Volpe said. In short, young people are still very interested in making a difference, but they're doing it more through community service.

3. Elected officials need to find ways to make young people feel empowered to participate. It isn't enough to ask young people to vote or write a check to a campaign, Della Volpe said. Rather, candidates and officials need to appeal to so many young people's community-service mentality and offer concrete, tangible ways they can make a difference. Della Volpe noted that Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) found a way to make young people feel empowered. In addition to seeking young people's policy ideas, "he asked them to get up off the couch and organize or to work in other ways than the government in the community." This campaign model — which may have served as inspiration for how President Obama campaigned for president — could prove valuable to other politicians as well. Said Della Volpe: "Every single elected official in America could be doing the same thing, and I guarantee you, youd have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of young people heeding that call and going to work to make their community — and, ultimately, the government — better."

4. Don't expect young people to turn out in November. Already, young people's interest in voting is down this year. The off-year election, the botched rollout of ObamaCare's online marketplace, and the government shutdown may have contributed to the erosion of trust in government and interest in political participation right now. But this trend in decreasing interest in participation among young people has only worsened in the most recent survey; the percentage of young people saying they would definitely vote in November dropped from 34 percent to 23 percent in just a few months. Interest in young-voter participation even lags behind 2010 levels. "The degree to which people are tuning out politics is somewhat surprising," Della Volpe said. "And hopefully it turns around. It's just a snapshot in time." He adds: "The good news is young people will participate in making the country better, but I'd argue that you need people participating not just on the outside, but on the inside."

5. Democrats have a growing young-people problem. Voters between 18 and 29 have been solidly Democratic in recent presidential elections, giving President Obama 60 percent support in 2012. However, if they don't turn out in November, Democrats strength at the polls will suffer. Moreover, young people who are likely to participate in November skew Republican relative to the overall pool of young people, Della Volpe said. The poll finds that 44 percent of 2012 Mitt Romney voters will definitely be voting, versus just 35 percent of Obama's 2012 backers. Another warning sign for Democrats, flagged by John Sides: The youngest of young millennials aren't as Democratic as their late-20s counterparts.

Listen to the whole conversation here:

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