‘Civic Engagement’ and the Youth Vote in 2014

Once again, the youth vote–18-30-year-olds–provided Barack Obama a staunchly reliable bloc in the 2012 election.  According to the Center for Information & Research on civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the youth vote went 67 percent for Obama, 30 percent for Romney.  If the youth vote were taken out of the population, Romney would have won Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, a total of 80 electoral votes that would have gone the other way and made Romney the winner

This imbalance bodes poorly for Republicans in 2016, though it is unlikely that the Democrats will come up with a candidate as personally appealing to 22-year-olds as is Obama.  (Can you see Hilary Clinton delivering a speech to college students in 2016 promising to alter the terms of their student loans in exchange for their vote?).  Still, social conservatism is anathema to most youths, and we’re likely to see more “Julia”-like videos distributed to them in the months before voting day.

But there is one trend working in Republicans’ favor: the midterm elections.  CIRCLE has another report out this week that warns of a coming plummet in the youth vote in 2014. A table shows what happens to the 18-29 cohort in off-years–it plummets by half.  In 2004, 49 percent showed up to vote, but in 60 only 25 percent did; in 08, it reached 51 percent, but 2010 only 24 percent.  While the 2010 massacre of Democrats in Congress was attributed to Big Government overreach by the Obama Administration, the steep drop in the youth vote turnout was a significant factor.

They give various reasons for dropping out in the midterms, including “too busy,” lack of interest, “didn’t feel like my vote would count,” and “forgot.”  Whatever the cause, though, the general pattern holds, and unless Democrats repeat their successful get-out-the-vote efforts of last year, a Democrat gain of seats is jeopardized.

Expect, then, strenuous “get-out-and-vote” activities on campus next year, along with more proposals geared precisely to their benefit (and that turn youth populations into “clients”).   Watch closely, too, for civic engagement programs on college campuses, even those without any trace of partisanship.  One of CIRCLE’s consistent findings is that civics-oriented curricula and extra-curriculars have a decided effect on voter participation.  The more young people are exposed the them, we find, the higher their engagement.  With the youth vote so solidly on the liberal side, we should examine statements about civic engagement programs and proposals not simply on the grounds of their relation to the burdens of citizenship in a free republic, but also as possible sources of support for one political party.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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