Generation Y takes a whirl with the left
But can Dems hold its allegiance down the road?
Will Selph's family has known defeated Montana Sen. Conrad Burns for years, and Selph, a University of Montana sophomore and chair of the state's college Republicans, did everything he could to turn out the vote for the senator. Selph supported Burns's stands on national security and gay marriage, and he calls Burns "youthful" and "spry"-never mind his age, which is 71. The way Selph sees it, Burns shouldn't have been a difficult sell for younger voters.
But to hear Bryce Bennett, a senior and chair of the state's college Democrats, describe him, Conrad Burns might as well have been Mr. Burns, the scheming, century-old billionaire from the television show The Simpsons. Burns's votes to cut student loans angered Bennett, who has also seen a friend come home injured from Iraq and worries about getting health insurance after he graduates.
Judging from the recent election, there may be a lot more young people like Bennett than like Selph. In surveys and exit polls, generation Y is increasingly turning left. And with voters' earliest choices thought to be key to their future party identification, the GOP could be running out of chances to win back a generation.
Young people aren't just voting more Democratic; they're voting more in general. Over 2 million more people ages 18 to 29 voted in this election than in 2002, and their 24 percent turnout was the highest for a midterm election since 1994. Much of this turnout increase and the greater support for Democrats can be traced to the war in Iraq, but that doesn't mean either trend will disappear once the war is over, since early voting is a strong predictor of future behavior.
Leading indicators. Republicans "are looking down the barrel of a long gun because this is a demographic that will be around for a long time," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who conducted an analysis of exit polls with Republican Ed Goeas. The polls show voters ages 18 to 30 favored Democrats by 50 percent to 35 percent in House races. Young voters' top concerns-including Iraq, the cost of college, and healthcare-bode well for Democrats, while issues that tend to favor Republicans, including moral values, taxes, and terrorism, scored low. Other studies tell a similar story. Results from a survey of incoming college freshmen, conducted annually by the University of California-Los Angeles and compiled last week, shows falling support for military spending and growing acceptance of homosexuality and abortion, a reversal from the conservatism seen in the years following 9/11.
But Democrats shouldn't breathe easy, says Curtis Gans, a voter participation expert at American University, who says the 2006 election signaled anger at the GOP more than long-term allegiance to the Democrats. "It really depends on what the Democrats do and whether the Republicans change," he says. To secure the youth vote, Democrats have plans to lower interest rates on student loans and restore funding for Pell grants. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean suggested the party might push for universal healthcare for all citizens younger than 25.