WASHINGTON — Only about 20 percent of the nation's young people turned out to vote last week, a drop from the last midterm election in 2006.
Despite the sparse turnout, voters age 18 to 29 voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, but it wasn't nearly enough to blunt Republican gains that gave the GOP its first majority in the House since 2006.
In a study released Tuesday, CIRCLE and Generational Alliance, independent groups that track young voter participation, found that 20.9 percent of all eligible voters under 30 went to the polls last week, compared with 23.5 percent in the last midterm election four years ago.
The 2010 turnout was a dramatic drop from the 2008 presidential election, when 51 percent of the young people voted. Such declines aren't common between presidential and midterm election years. Even if those who showed up in 2008 had voted this time, it's unclear how much their vote would have helped Democrats.
This year's young voter turnout trend reverses a nearly decade-long increase in 18-to-29-year-old participation and returns mid-term election turnout to more typical levels.
"A lot of young people still had a lot of passion. But the same people who recruited them and said, 'here's what you can do' two years ago weren't around," said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the CIRCLE lead researcher.
Nationally, the turnout trend went the other way — an estimated 42 percent of eligible voters went to the polls last week, compared to 40.8 percent four years ago, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which studies voter trends.
A key reason for the higher national turnout, said the committee's director, Curtis Gans, was the motivation that often drive more voters to the polls: A shaky economy.
Gans did find one difference from the usual pattern.
"Under normal circumstances, when there is a recession, the party in power in the White House suffers and turnout increases substantially — as occurred in 1982 and 1992," he said. "This is a more prolonged and deeper recession than any since the 1930s Depression, but while the Democrats suffered greatly at all levels — Congress, governors' offices and state legislatures — it was not accompanied by the normal turnout surge."
That could be because the voter were not necessarily buying Republican alternatives — even Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged last week that voters "didn't suddenly fall in love with Republicans, they fell out of love with Democrats."
That trend was evident in other voter subgroups. Exit polls found that House Democrats got 48 percent support from women, down from 55 percent two years ago. Republicans won 49 percent of their vote this time.
Young voters clung to Democrats, though not by the 66 percent to 32 percent margin they gave President Barack Obama two years ago.
Eighty-four percent of 2008 young voters went to the polls last week, and gave House Democrats a 57 percent to 40 percent edge. Young voters were about 11 percent of the electorate, and Kawashima-Ginsberg said it's unclear how the non-voters would have voted.
Obama still does well among young voters. By a 60-40 margin, they approve of the job Obama is doing. Young voter support was considered crucial to Obama's victory two years ago, and the poll suggests it's barely waned. Among all voters, 45 percent approved of the president and 54 percent disapproved. All data comes from national exit polls by Edison Research.
By 55 percent to 41 percent, young voters said last week the president's policies would help the nation in the long run.
There was also a warning to Democrats. Peter Levine, CIRCLE Director, said Democrats "need to engage them (young voters) better than they did in 2010, and Republicans need to make inroads in a generation that continues to prefer Democrats."
There were differences between young voters who have attended college, about half the electorate, and those who didn't. Though the economy topped the list of issues for all voters, those lacking college experience were more likely to cite health care as a priority, as well as job creation.
The young electorate this year was also more diverse than the nation. Two-thirds of voters 18 to 29 this year were white, 14 percent were black, 15 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian American. In the country as a whole, among voters 30 and older, 80 percent of voters were white, 10 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian-American.
Seven percent of young voters said they were gay, lesbian or bisexual, compared with 4 percent of all voters.
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