Harvard Poll of Young Voters Should Worry Democrats

Harvard's Institute of Politics released the latest results from its ongoing survey of young adults this morning, and they don't look good for Democrats. As in the rest of the population, President Obama remains personally popular (56 percent approval), but support for his individual initiatives, like health-care reform, is much weaker. Only 38 percent of young people (defined as 18- to 29-year-olds) approve of the president's handling of the deficit, and a majority disapprove of his economic management (51 percent) and his work on health care (53 percent). Young people are unimpressed with congressional Democrats, with only 42 percent approving of their performance. That's still higher than for congressional Republicans—who have a mere 35 percent approval rating—but Democratic approval is down 6 points since last November, which is a worrying trend going into the midterms.

The worst sign for Democrats is voter enthusiasm. Young voters are a critical demographic for both the president and Democrats in Congress. They were the key to Obama's success last cycle, both in the primaries and the general election. Young voters arguably pushed him over the top in Indiana and North Carolina—two significant states in his victory over John McCain—and, going all the way back to January 2008, they handed him his very first victory, in the Iowa caucuses. This year only 35 percent of young Democratic voters say they'll turn out in November. Young Republicans, on the other hand, are significantly more enthusiastic, with 41 percent saying they definitely plan to vote. Among those who voted for John McCain in 2008, 53 percent told Harvard they were certain to vote this year, while only 44 percent of Obama voters plan to cast ballots.  And those who disapprove of Obama's job performance are more likely to vote than those who approve.

In another worrying sign for Democrats, only 18 percent of young Hispanics, a group that generally leans Democratic, say they'll turn out this year. Of those young Hispanics who took the survey in Spanish, only 12 percent say they'll vote in November. This group also showed the biggest decline in support for Obama. In November 2009, 81 percent of young Hispanics approved of Obama's performance. That number declined 12 points, to 69 percent, in the current poll.

The survey also showed that financial security is a pressing issue for young adults. Nearly half of them say they're worried about losing their job, and 45 percent describe their personal financial situation as bad. Just 14 percent of young people attending a four-year college believe that finding a job will be easy for them upon graduation. Perhaps the numbers of most concern are these: 64 percent of community-college students and 45 percent of four-year college students are worried about their ability to stay in school because of the economic climate. In focus groups, the pollsters found young people were deeply concerned about the debt they are racking up at school, and students at state universities and community colleges in particular are increasingly likely to consider dropping out to earn money.

This poll should concern Democrats. Young-voter turnout played no small part in Democratic victories in both 2006 and 2008. Last year's gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey showed what happens when young people stay home. Obama won both states in 2008, but only 10 percent of voters in Virginia last November were under 30 (compared with 21 percent in 2008), and in New Jersey, young people accounted for just 9 percent, down from 17 percent the previous year. The lesson is pretty clear: Democrats suffer when young people don't vote. November is already looking gloomy for the Democrats, and if they can't get young people to turn out for them, odds are they'll pay for it.