The streets were overflowing as a brisk November air rushed through New York City. Car horns blared, music boomed and all around eager 20-somethings, many sitting on each other’s shoulders, cheered wildly: a veritably frenzy perhaps only matched in intensity by the sheer chaos that is New Year’s Eve. But the thousands huddled in Times Square that night, basking in the glow of neon lights and flash bulbs, were not there to ring in the New Year. Rather, it was election night.
In 2008, then Senator Barack Obama was propelled into the White House largely on the backs of young voters. Sold on the idea of change they could believe in, Generation Y voted in record numbers and dispelled the notion that it was apathetic when it came to politics.
But now just four short years later, with the unemployment rate dauntingly high, this generation’s youthful enthusiasm has come face to face with a bleak reality. While in 2008, it seemed that Obama held a monopoly over this generation’s votes, that may no longer be the case. Millennials are still a highly sought commodity but now considered a more available one, with candidates on both sides of the political spectrum vying for their attention. So the question becomes: What role will Generation Y will play in this election cycle?
“We fundamentally believe that the demographic of 18 to 29 will determine the 2012 elections,” says Paul Conway of Generation Opportunity, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes young voters. Conway’s organization has connected with nearly two million users over Facebook.
Generation Y’s size alone means their support could tip the balance in favor of any given candidate. Today, young voters account for roughly 18 percent of the electorate, which is more than senior citizens — another highly sought after generational group. And by 2015, the generation is expected to make up about one third of the total voting population.
Moreover, Conway says, the fact that the political climate today is so tenuous, younger voters will feel the need to take to the voting booths come November 2012.
“In 2008 folks sought to change the status quo that what they were going through and what they saw they didn’t like,” he says. “That underlying dynamic of a desire to change the status quo is even more intense in 2012.”
Like most of the country, the number one issue facing Generation Y is the economy. With nearly 45 percent of people between the age of 16 and 29 without jobs, the call for economic recovery is seemingly loudest from the nation’s youngest.
“Every day we’re asking ourselves what’s going to be out there when we graduate,” says 18-year-old Trevor Brownlow, a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “That’s the centralizing issue for our generation.”
According to a study conducted by Generation Opportunity, 77 percent of Generation Y says they are delaying major life changes because of economic restraints. Another 54 percent believe the nation is on the wrong track.
Some point to these statistics and say they have dampened Generation Y’s enthusiasm. David Madland, director of the American Worker Project, believes Generation Y will still vote, but the overwhelming support it gave Obama in 2008 will not be repeated. Though Madland believes Obama will still receive the bulk of Generation Y’s support — largely because of their progressive leanings — the same fervor among his supporters will not be seen.
“In some ways there was sort of a real idealism to 2008 that gave the sense that everything was possible,” he said. “And then when reality hits and you see how hard change is there is going to be some inevitable disappointment.”
NYU senior Sarah Kim voted for Obama in 2008 and says she will most likely vote for him again in 2012. But the decision was a more difficult one to make this year. She adds that she doesn’t see the same overwhelming wave of support for one candidate, especially with the complexities of dealing with a stagnating economy.
“It was cool to like Obama, and it was cool to like change and be on the side of hope. And that’s why it was so easy [to vote for him],” Kim says. “His campaign was you’re on the team that’s for hope, and it was such a simple thing. But now candidates can’t do that — they need a laundry list of issues [to tackle the economy], and it’s harder for young voters to get swept up like they did in 2008.”
This trend is evidenced in recent polling data. Since 2008, the president’s approval rating among this generation has dropped dramatically, falling from 84 percent when he took office to 52 percent by October 2011. Still, 18 to 34 year olds support the president over a general Republican challenger by a 51 to 44 margin.
But whichever candidate hopes to win the support of millennials will have to accommodate an electorate with a set of specific priorities.
“Universal health care, gay rights, all of these issues are as progressive as ever,” he Madland says. “They want the government to do all sorts of progressive things, but they’re skeptical that the government can do so. And this prolonged economic downturn has only fueled those doubts.”
Yet, like many other in her generation, Julianne Nowicki, a second-year law student at Ave Maria Law School, says she can no longer afford to consider a candidate’s complete social platform.
“In 2008, I was focused more on social issues. Issues like abortion or embryonic stem cell research were very important to me,” she says. “But for this election, I would say that economic issues are now at the forefront of my consideration.”
So the name of the game for many candidates is marketing themselves to millennials. Since 2008, every candidate has seemingly taken a page from Obama’s 2008 playbook and is relying heavily on social media to get their message to the Generation Y voter. While the president continues to take to social media with YouTube addresses and Twitter town halls, Republican challengers are doing the same. Earlier this year, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney launched a massive online campaign using on Twitter, foursquare and Google+ for the Ames Straw Poll.
Madland argues that this leveling of the playing field may be a boon to Republican candidates. He says now that other candidates have adopted such practices Obama is no longer considered the clear-cut “young-person’s candidate” as he was in 2008. Still Mandland projects that because of Generation Y’s more progressive views and its sheer size, Obama still looks to have an advantage over a Republican challenger.
“Even if the turnout isn’t as high as it was in the past, it will still likely be a larger part of the electorate,” he says. “So the turnout doesn’t have to be as high as it was last time around for Obama to win. In fact it can be a decent amount lower, and he would still win.”