Here's something that should make David Axelrod nervous: there are probably more Yankees fans in Massachusetts than there are young people who voted in the Massachusetts Senate special election, which cost the Democrats their filibuster-proof supermajority. Just 15 percent of eligible voters under age 30 participated. The numbers were similarly dismal during two other Republican electoral victories from last fall. In the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, just 17 and 19 percent of potential young voters participated, respectively.
This wasn't just a fluke trifecta of uninspiring elections. It is, rather, part of a nationwide trend toward apathy among Americans under 30. Harvard's Institute of Politics (IOP), which regularly polls young people on political issues, found last fall that just 24 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds said that they were "politically engaged or politically active," a 19-point drop from a year earlier. This could mean trouble down the road for a Democratic Party that may have begun taking the youth vote for granted. Young voters, after all, turned out in record numbers for the 2008 election, and if they hadn't, Obama might not be in the White House. But if Democrats don't pass health-care reform, youth turnout may plummet.
Obama's strong statements on health-care reform during his State of the Union address dealt at least a glancing blow to the then conventional wisdom, which was that Democrats were mere inches from irrevocable defeat on health care. Still, given the mess Nancy Pelosi faces in the House, it seems more likely than not that the party will, at best, pass through a series of minor patches. The reasons for this are complicated and have been hashed over endlessly, but a compelling reason to pass health-care reform is being ignored by the party bosses: it could forestall a devastating migration of young voters away from the party and back into political apathy.
Young Americans are uniquely affected by the nation's broken health-care system. The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that aims to improve health care, found in a report released in December that nearly half of all young adults between 19 and 29 said they were uninsured at some time during the past year. Because this age range brings with it a number of transition points that can lead to coverage being cut off—high school and college graduation, and early internships or jobs that don't provide coverage—it's a decade fraught with peril.
Given the weakness in the economy, says Sara Collins, co-author of the report, young adults looking for insurance through their employers face an uphill battle. If the economy gets worse, so too will the health-care outlook for young Americans. "This will become increasingly serious if it's not addressed through policy," Collins told NEWSWEEK.
It's no surprise, then, that even after months of demonization, including countless falsehoods about government takeovers and "death panels," young people remain the group that supports health-care reform at the highest rates. When the Commonwealth Fund asked young respondents whether it was important for Congress and the president to improve the health-care system, 88 percent said yes.
John Halpin, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank (full disclosure: I used to work there), took the issue a step further. Young people, he wrote in an e-mail, "are much more supportive of a positive role for government in the economy and social policy than are older voters…The perception of how the health-care fight has unfolded—as well as other issue battles on the banks and the economy—surely has not helped matters on this front."
The Harvard IOP data support Halpin's view when it comes to health care. In its fall 2009 poll, the Institute found that young people approve by a large margin every potential health-care remedy that involves a more direct role for government, including offering a public option, enacting a universal mandate, and increasing government regulation over how health-insurance companies handle preexisting conditions.
Halpin's point and the IOP's polling hint at the Democratic Party's biggest youth-vote problem: young voters were awestruck by Obama because he was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate who they thought would act on their behalf, not merely because he was a Democrat. If the Democrats drop health care, there will be an entire generation of young voters unable to point to a single major legislative accomplishment from the party during their lifetime. And as far they will be concerned, when it came time for the Democrats to act on an issue that was particularly important to them, they folded.
None of this is to say that Obama and congressional Democrats haven't delivered on issues of importance to young people. Obama signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will greatly expand national community service programs and more than triple the size of AmeriCorps by 2017. He has also pushed hard to address onerous student loans, which hamper many young Americans through their twenties and beyond. And Congressional Democrats quickly raised the minimum wage—which young people are more likely to earn than older workers—after taking control in 2007.
But politically disengaged young voters aren't as aware of these moves as they are of the noisy fight over health care. They may have deviated from their usual stay-at-home tendencies to vote overwhelmingly Democrat in 2008, but when Democrats exhort them to repeat the act in 2010 and 2012, their inevitable response will be: "why?" In a feverishly anti-incumbent political climate fueled by the terrible economy, this could hand some races to the GOP.
"I speculate that a lot of [young people] will think if the Democrats drop the [health-care] bill, that there really isn't any point to engaging through national politics," says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a Tufts University–based organization that studies youth political engagement.
Levine drew analogies to 1992, when he and other left-leaning Generation-Xers, coming of age politically after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, were inspired to vote for Clinton. They were quickly disappointed by what they saw as his policy failings.
"We were waiting for a Democratic president," he said, "and when he didn't do what had been expected, a lot of people in my generation then decided that political engagement wasn't valuable and did service instead." Sure enough, youth turnout plunged in the 1996 presidential election and didn't exceed the 1992 level until 2008.
If the Democrats let down young voters by walking away from health-care reform, history may repeat itself in more ways than one.