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Wasted Youth

Is Obama squandering his support among under-30 voters?

12:00 AM, Sep 10, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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President Obama's performance among young voters in 2008 was an electoral tour de force. He thumped his rival John McCain by 34 points (66 percent to 32 percent) among those 18 to 29 years old.

The dramatic shift in the under-30 crowd (Kerry only beat Bush by nine points four years earlier) started left-leaning partisans crowing. A continuation of this pattern would signal the dawning of an enduring Democratic majority in America.

Political analysis by Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress reflects this school of thought. In a paper titled The New Progressive America, Teixeira argues this Democratic-dominated slice of the electorate will only increase in importance as they grow older and replace aging cohorts.

But will these voters maintain their fidelity to Democrats? Voters under 30 are still President Obama's political anchor. He enjoys a comfortable 58 percent approval among younger voters according to the most recent Rasmussen poll. But just as Obama's support has declined among all Americans, his approval from voters under 30 also dropped from its high of 69 percent in February.

Movement like this suggests younger Americans may not have made a life commitment to President Obama or the Democratic Party.

Political scientists Karen M. Kaufman, John R. Petrocik, and Daron R. Shaw, in their book Unconventional Wisdom: Facts and Myths About American Voters, provide further evidence that extrapolating future electoral behavior from the under-30 bloc is risky business.

Kaufman and her colleagues trace the voting behavior of several generations of Americans. They find several cohorts--Post-World War II, Vietnam War/Civil Rights and Reagan Era voters--began with a heavy tilt toward the Democrats but then became more Republican over time. Other generations--Pre-World War II and Clinton Era voters--moved more in the Democratic direction as they aged.

Dynamic political and social events, as well as the skill of candidates and parties, drive these voters in different directions. Their initial vote choices are not set in stone.

Could such a reassessment happen today? Keep in mind we're talking about changes on the margin. Could Republicans--armed with the right messages--swing 15 to 20 percent of this cohort back again? It's possible, particularly because President Obama and the Democrats have abandoned several core principles that attracted these voters in the first place. Here are at least three factors that could begin a reassessment by the millennial generation.

First, wounded idealism. The president promised to rise above the polarized politics of the past. He pledged a post-partisan approach to governing. Yet his legislative proposals have produced rancorous partisan debate and many party-line votes. The town hall meetings this summer revealed deep fissures in American political culture that require healing, not bare-knuckle politics of us versus them. Speaking of bare knuckles, one of the president's supporters took this tactic to a whole new level when he literally bit off the finger of an opponent--not the kind of transformational politics most under 30 voters had in mind.

Second, deficits do matter. The younger generation has asked itself, who is left standing in the game of fiscal musical chairs? And they don't like the answer: it's them. Candidate Obama deflected some of these concerns by promising fiscal responsibility and by criticizing the Bush administration's spending. Yet as David Walker, former Government Accountability Office head, told the Wall Street Journal last week, $56 trillion in unfunded liabilities is like forcing everyone to take out second or third mortgages equal to ten times their income. The consequences of these liabilities will land hard on the next generation.

Finally, voters under 30 may be among those most sensitive to more government control over their lives. "This is the most empowered generation ever," Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos told me. "They're not used to having anyone tell them what to do." He believes a bigger, more complicated, more intrusive government will create a culture clash. He's right.

An encroaching government Leviathan is the opposite of empowerment. "How many times did we hear 'change' starts from the bottom up; it starts with you," Castellanos added. But in Obama's world, change apparently starts at the top. It begins in Washington, by passing new laws, rules and regulations.