Youth Vote Up For Grabs — If They Show

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Just as the world is beginning to understand the importance of the Millennial generation and the impact they’ve already had — electing a president, bringing democracy to the Middle East and adding more than a trillion dollars a year to our economy — I fear that we are about to be thrown a curve ball.

The most connected and, I’d say, the most civic-minded generation since World War II is telling anyone who will listen that they are ready to take a collective “time out” from the election this fall. They love their country, they work in their communities — but they are not convinced that participating in this election will contribute to solving the challenges the nation faces.

The generation of people born from about 1980 to 1994, which had been gaining share in the electorate for the four election cycles after 9/11, took a step back from voting in the 2010 midterms, and its members have consistently been saying, through exit polls, surveys and focus groups, that they are less likely to participate now than four years ago. Unlike other groups, they are not accustomed to lifelong voting.

Millennials have made no secret of the fact that for them, like older voters, the economy trumps everything. With about one in four out of work, they have been the hardest hit. These young Americans came of age in one of the most disruptive times in our history — 9/11, multiple wars, terrorist attacks at home and abroad — and they saw the Great Recession tear apart families and businesses close to home.

They are not asking for handouts or special treatment; they are asking for civility in government, dignity, respect and an opportunity to work hard at a job that they can feel good about. A job that’s close to home, so they can stay connected to family and friends, would be a plus.

Although more Millennials tell us they disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy than approve of it, this by no means is to say that Mitt Romney will win the youth vote outright. He will almost certainly trim the margin, though, compared with 2008, when Obama received about twice as many votes from Millennials as Sen. John McCain.

In the recent Wisconsin recall election, Republican Gov. Scott Walker won the 18-24-year-old cohort. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS was there; Rove understands what is happening more than most and knows that Millennials are the key to Virginia and North Carolina, and perhaps to the Electoral College. For the next few months, there will be a real “horse race” among younger Millennials as well as white Millennials.

Before either Obama’s or Romney’s campaign can successfully connect with, persuade and mobilize the close to 20 million Millennials who will vote, my advice is that they take a giant step back, reintroduce themselves and make the case as to why participation matters.

To earn a vote from a young person this fall, candidates will need to offer more than a 30-second commercial, tweet or text message. They will need to be candid about the problems and acknowledge that the solutions are not easy.

It’s what Sen. Barack Obama did so well in his Boston keynote in 2004, and it’s what both Obama and Romney have the capacity to do now. Take the campaign to a higher place; talk about the values that unite us. America is a land of opportunity – where, in spite of the economy, every person, regardless of age, sex, race, or religion, has a chance. It’s the message that Millennials of all backgrounds communicated to me loud and clear on my recent six-city tour.

And it’s the message that can connect either campaign with Millennials now. If they can establish a rapport that begins a relationship, that may well lead to more Millennials voting in November.

For everyone’s sake, I hope that happens.

This program aired on August 7, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.