Can Obama fire up younger voters?
As national attention focuses on the devastation inflicted on Atlantic states by megastorm Sandy, polls show the same basic electoral reality that has prevailed throughout the presidential campaign: Without a strong turnout among young voters, President Barack Obama loses on Nov. 6.
So, Obama may need more than fiery “go vote!” entreaties to students to overcome his presidency’s disorganized, mixed record on youth issues.
New polls taken nationally and in key swing states (Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin) show how crucial young voters are to the president’s reelection. Obama leads Republican challenger Mitt Romney among 18- to 29-year-olds by landslide margins, more than offsetting the mildly pro-Romney sentiments of their elders.
In Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Wisconsin under-30 voters support Obama by margins of 24, 25, 25, and 36 points, respectively. Wide as his 20-point lead among young voters nationally is, however, it’s far narrower than his 34-point victory margin among the young in the 2008 election — which he won handily.
Recent polls also reveal that young voters, previously considered apathetic, now express more enthusiasm for voting than older constituents. In Colorado, 67 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters report being “very excited” about the election, as do 69 percent in Ohio, 72 percent in North Carolina and an astounding 93 percent in Nevada. Voters age 30 and older in those states are considerably less enthusiastic.
Young-voter passion, if it translates into more voting, appears mostly self-generated. Obama’s campaign has largely ignored young Americans’ issues ‑ except when they coincide with those of established interests, such as education lobbies. Worse, Obama argued in the second presidential debate for providing more “opportunity” for young people in the negative context of blaming them for gun violence.
In the campaign’s final days, Obama should advocate for young Americans’ interests clearly and forcefully ‑ as he has for seniors’ Social Security and Medicare. Just as Eleanor Roosevelt did in the 1930s.
The first lady crusaded for federal initiatives to confront the crises among young people hard hit by the Great Depression. She sought to sharply expand education and job opportunities, including creation of the National Youth Administration.
A similarly dynamic presidential initiative geared to 2012’s realities is needed. Young Americans ‑ whose well-being matched their elders’ prior to 1970 ‑ are now twice as likely to live in poverty, according to new income, poverty and health insurance figures from the Census. They are 80 percent more likely to lack health insurance, and they and they face a widening income gap compared with older Americans.
Median annual family income, youngest vs. oldest householders, 1960-2011 (in constant 2011 dollars)
After four decades of public- and private-sector policies tilted toward the aged, 10 million Americans under age 25 live in destitution (incomes less than half the meager poverty level) ‑ a trend some Obama initiatives perpetuate.
Obama’s modest efforts to hold down college costs, defer deportation of young immigrants, allow young adults to stay on parents’ health insurance and expand AmeriCorps’ employment programs are laudable. But broader federal policies contributing to young adults’ troubles require systematic review and organized reform. Most simply fail to address young adults’ worst problems.
For example, the president’s website touts the “benefits for young people” of the Affordable Care Act provision allowing them to remain on parents’ health insurance policies until age 26. It credits this reform with helping 2.5 million young adults to get insured.
However, the more troubling question is how the Obama health care reforms will affect the 8 million 19- to 25-year-olds who remain uninsured and aren’t covered by their parents’ insurance, as well as the 10 million aged 26 to 34 who lack coverage. Unfortunately, starting in 2014, according to a recent study by insurance adviser GoHealth.com, “young adults will be charged much more than they are currently on the individual market to comply with the age rating requirements.”
Why? Because Obamacare arbitrarily limits premiums, the most expensive age to insure (the old) will pay to no more than three times that of the least expensive age (young adults). Health insurance premiums based on actual medical expenses require 60-year-olds to pay around four times more than do 20 year-olds.
“To keep costs lower for older consumers (who politicians know vote more often), politicians are essentially picking the pockets of younger consumers to balance the healthcare premiums table,” market analyst MainStreet.com notes. “Cynical? Maybe. Good politics? Probably.”
Young adults’ economic disadvantages relative to their elders are exacerbated by a key feature of the Obama administration’s Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The act’s tougher prohibitions against arbitrary discrimination based on gender, color, race, religion, national origin and age failed to close a major loophole in the 1967 law it amended: Age discrimination provisions only protect workers age 40 and older.
Thus, employers retain strong incentives to pay younger workers less than older workers for the same duties. This is not about employers offering more pay based on demonstrably greater experience or merit, but arbitrary discrimination based on age that has nothing to do with job performance or capability.
Similarly, the White House projects its legislation holding down interest rates on college loans will save the average student borrower $1,041 per year. That’s important, but the big picture is grimmer. In 2011 public university enrollees paid an average of $8,700 in tuition and fees. That’s $6,600 more, adjusted for inflation, than students paid in 1965 ($2,100 in constant 2011 dollars) when higher education was heavily tax-subsidized. Today’s students bear staggering education loan debt.
Today’s young Americans, unlike those of the past, can’t count on their elders to look out for the well-being of the generations that follow. So it is sadly understandable that both young voters — and the politicians who need their support — are having problems devising policies that address today’s widening “generation gap.”
But unless storm Sandy proves a devastating game-changer, Obama’s prospects on Tuesday continue to depend on how young people perceive his concern for their growing difficulties.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama greets supporters at Cornell College in Mt Vernon, on October 17, 2012. Jason Reed/REUTERS