President Obama has lately favored intimate backyard chats to show he's in touch with folks around the country. But last week, holding his biggest midterm election campaign event to date, he demonstrated that he still has the star power to draw a huge college crowd, with some 26,000 turning out to see him at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And at watch parties on 200 other college campuses, thousands more students gathered this past Tuesday evening to view the president's Madison rally.
Such a response may raise Democrats' hopes for the youth vote. Yet many political experts doubt that the millennials will turn out for the midterm elections in near the numbers of two years ago, when their enthusiasm and votes helped propel Democrats to victory. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted September 22-26 reported that only 35 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds say they are enthusiastic about this election. Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a bipartisan voting advocacy organization, says there is still a chance to engage young voters. "If the candidates running for office in a number of these states with competitive races actually invest in young people and can follow up on the momentum created by the president's rallies on campuses around the country, it will have a huge impact," she says. "But the candidates have to take the baton and run with it."
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Sept. 28, Vice President Joe Biden spoke to a capacity crowd of 1,000 in Alumni Hall at Penn State University-University Park. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine and senior administration officials Kathleen Sebelius, Hilda Solis, and Ron Kirk also headlined campus rallies. They echoed Obama's message in Wisconsin: "We cannot sit this one out. We can't let this country fall backwards because the rest of us didn't care enough to fight."
Obama and Biden both spoke out against the lack of fervor among Democrats, and especially among the younger generation. Republicans too realize the importance of the youth vote. For example, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has visited half a dozen Southern college campuses in the past two weeks to spread the GOP message. According to a poll that Rock the Vote released in mid-September, 34 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 said they wanted Democrats to keep control, compared with 28 percent who said they would prefer a Republican takeover. However, the largest group, 36 percent, said that it didn't matter which party controlled Congress.
Smith says that young people are more concerned with what the government has done for them than with what they regard as Washington politics. That means, she says, that Democrats' best hope is to talk about their accomplishments involving job creation, student loan reform, and the provision in the healthcare law that allows those under age 26 to remain on their parents' medical insurance plans.