Only one year after Barack Obama captured the hearts, minds, and votes of an entire generation of young Americans, those same voters proved that they are not a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. Looking at election data from this week's statewide elections in New Jersey and Virginia, it seems that the loyalty of young voters may only have been to one man -- Barack Obama -- not a party or an ideology, presenting a real opportunity for the GOP despite calls of extinction after 2008.
According to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), turnout among 18-29 year olds was 19% in New Jersey and only 17% in Virginia. This compares with 53% and 59% young voter turnout in the 2008 Presidential elections in New Jersey and Virginia, respectively. Even considering the typical drop-off during an off-year election, turnout only in the teens is alarmingly low.
The young people who were the driving force of the Obama campaign stayed home in 2009. Claims that President Obama won a generation of young Americans to the Democratic Party were vastly exaggerated. The power of Obamamania, it seems, was personality politics -- not an actual commitment to the Democratic Party or principles.
Perhaps more amazing and disappointingly under-reported by the media is the fact that 18-29 year olds in Virginia voted for Bob McDonnell over the Democrat 54% to 44%. McDonnell proved that a dynamic candidate with the right ideas, an active youth outreach program, and strategic use of new media technologies, Republican candidates can win the youth vote. The McDonnell campaign deserves credit for its text messaging program, the Young Professionals coalition that leveraged both fundraising and grassroots organizing, and the energy that his daughters brought to the election.
The GOP needs to wake up and take note. Bob McDonnell did not invent a new way of campaigning. He was the right candidate with the right message who refused to cede Virginia's youth to the Democrats and actually reached out to them. Republicans should take this week's election results as a sign that the Grand Old Party still has a real opportunity to appeal to young voters.