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Mark Bennett Opinion

November 7, 2010

Mark Bennett: One age group defied the GOP landslide election on Tuesday

TERRE HAUTE — Change is coming, eventually.

A sign of that inevitability emerged in Tuesday’s election results. However, this hint of things to come clashes with the images of Republicans celebrating an overwhelming return to power in the U.S. House of Representatives, just four years after losing control of that chamber of Congress. Hidden within exit-poll statistics, the sign is subtle, yet significant.

The GOP owes a huge part of its victory to the increased turnout by older conservative voters. Nearly a quarter of the electorate (23 percent) came from the 65-and-older crowd, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s a jump from 15 percent in 2008 and 19 percent in 2006. And nearly 3 of every 5 seniors (58 percent) voted predominantly Republican.

Baby boomers (folks 45 to 64) and Generation X’ers (30 to 44) backed Republicans, too, although less intensely, with a bit more than half leaning to the right.

Only one age group defied the landslide. Fifty-six percent of the nation’s youngest voters, the under-30 group, backed Democratic candidates. Their contrariness didn’t matter, this time. Neither party targeted young adults in campaign messages. Instead, the corporate-financed attack ads were aimed at the parents and grandparents of those teens and twentysomethings, especially through ominous warnings about the federal health care reform act. The ads contained grim images of Barack Obama and dire indictments of the president’s policies and any congressional candidate who shared his party affiliation.

Those tactics failed to frighten most young Americans.

For example, when it comes to health care reform, young adults comprise the nation’s most uninsured age group. One-third of the population ages 19 to 29 — or 13 million Americans — lacks health insurance. The costly impact of an unexpected ailment or car accident on a young, uninsured parent was never addressed in those attack ads.

The Millennials (people born after 1984) primarily were an afterthought in the 2010 election. But as their voting participation level steadies in the future, the parties will have to adapt their campaign strategies to appeal to this unique sector of the populace. Millennials are the most diverse generation in the nation’s history, according to Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The presence of the nation’s first black president or first female speaker of the U.S. House doesn’t feel unusual to most Millennials.

“They have a different sense of diversity than we do,” said Darlene Hantzis, a communications professor who coordinates Indiana State University’s involvement in the American Democracy Project. “They notice [diversity] less. They just expect it.”

Millennials also know uncertainty. They came of age in post-9/11 America, when recession, lengthy wars and disappearing retirement accounts became the norm.

Hantzis, 51, grew up during the politically turbulent 1960s and ’70s in Indianapolis, as one of five kids in a Greek-American family. The current generation of college students’ interest in politics is strong, she said, but often gets dampened by their elders.

“They really see themselves as actors in the political process,” Hantzis said. “They think we don’t see them that way, though. … I hold us [over-30 folks] responsible for that. We forget how we made it into this area.”

Honestly, after the historic youth vote turnout in the 2008 presidential election, did most older Americans praise or belittle the Millennials for helping elect Obama?

Only 20.4 percent of those under 30 voted Tuesday. That’s a slight drop from 23.5 percent in 2006, the last midterm election, and a steep drop from the massive 51-percent turnout in 2008. Traditionally, off-year elections lure fewer voters of all ages than those involving presidential candidates, so the disparity among the young from ’08 to this year isn’t shocking.

Still, the parties don’t spend much energy wooing young voters “because they’re the least-predictable voting block in America,” Hantzis said.

The young often face more obstacles in the voting process. Unlike older adults, they’re more likely to be living in a different town or state from one election to the next. College students frequently must choose between voting in their hometown with an absentee ballot, or changing their registration to their campus city.

The adoption of Election Day registration in Indiana would boost youth voting, Hantzis said. But, as the 2005 voter ID law demonstrated, the Hoosier state tends to add, rather than remove, barriers to participation.

ISU junior Josaphine Riley, a 21-year-old pre-med student, voted while living at home in Effingham, Ill., in 2008, but missed Tuesday’s balloting. “[Absentee voting] seemed so complicated, and I didn’t have time with school and everything, and it’s a bit of a distance to drive home.”

Jenna Tyler, a 25-year-old ISU sophomore from Louisville, Ky., registered and voted in Terre Haute in 2008. On Tuesday, though, she started classes at 8 a.m., sat through a 45-minute financial aid meeting, and worked stints at her two jobs. “So if I vote, it’ll have to be after 4:30,” Tyler said, glancing at her watch Tuesday afternoon. “And, I don’t know where I’m supposed to vote.”

In states with concentrated outreach toward youth voters, the turnout was higher than in 2006, CIRCLE’s Levine reported.

In time, though, Millennials who hit the polls with enthusiasm in ’08 will turn out with regularity, election after election, Hantzis predicted. They’ll be more inclined to encourage the next generation to follow their lead. And then, their views, needs and values won’t get dismissed or overlooked by the candidates or the major parties.

“I don’t think they’ll ever go away again,” Hantzis said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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