With only six months to go before the midterm elections, a meta-narrative is emerging that the electoral landscape favors the GOP. Journalists, political strategists and talking heads across the political spectrum are regurgitating the pollster line that a majority of potential voters—especially the ever elusive “independent”—are leaning Republican in 2014. And polling data suggest that 18- to 29-year-olds aren’t interested in voting at all.
A recent Harvard University Institute of Politics survey found that less than 1 in 4 young Americans say they will “definitely be voting” this November.
Black and Latino millennials are said to be so disillusioned that they see no need to vote. They report that they’re even less likely—at a rate of 19 percent, compared with 27 percent of their white counterparts—to cast a ballot. By contrast, Republicans of every age are more enthusiastic about voting, with 44 percent saying they will definitely vote—compared with 35 percent of Democrats.
In general, these predictions follow historic trends in which Democratic constituencies are more likely to vote during presidential elections, while constituencies that lean Republican are more reliable in off-year elections. But recent changes in voting patterns among young and minority voters leave the continuation of those trends in doubt.
In 2008 and 2012, young African Americans voted in larger percentages (pdf) than their white counterparts. And the percentage of black voters of all ages exceeded that of whites. So has any pollster bothered to ask why young black millennials are unenthusiastic about this election?
Perhaps it’s because despite historic social progress, when it comes to economics, African-American millennials are about as likely to trail behind their white counterparts (pdf) as their forebears were during the Jim Crow era. According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, the minority unemployment rate—particularly that of young black high school and college graduates—is higher than that of whites, in good times and bad.
Despite the continued economic recovery, the unemployment rate of young white high school graduates currently sits at 19.4 percent, while the rate for young black graduates is 34.7 percent.
For young black college graduates the landscape is also bleak: Their unemployment rate is 13.1 percent, compared with 8 percent for their white counterparts.
The underemployed also face stark realities. While the overall unemployment rate of millennials is 8.5 percent, the underemployment rate is almost twice that, at 16.8 percent. And African Americans are disproportionately affected. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2011 showed an underemployment rate of 42.6 percent for African Americans under the age of 25, and 32.6 percent for Hispanics. Only 24.5 percent of young whites were underemployed.
In analyzing the polls and concluding that 2014 will belong to the GOP, the chattering class appears to think that millennials are becoming convinced by Republican characterizations of President Barack Obama as an ineffective leader who has failed on the economy.
But they’re missing the point.
Republicans are winning, but on tactics—not ideas. The vicious, soulless and relentless war on hope and change has replaced straightforward conservative arguments for low taxes and smaller social welfare programs. Discouraging millennials and African Americans from voting is the major strategy in the Republican electoral playbook.
The GOP’s failure to compromise with Obama on everything that could improve the economy, infrastructure and education—and thereby improve prospects for the younger generation—has resulted in government shutdowns, debates over the debt ceiling, filibusters of commonsense gun control legislation, the defeat of a minimum wage bill and the stalemate over immigration reform.
It has also produced a tepid economic recovery that has left millions of Obama voters feeling that there is no recovery at all.
This is no coincidence. Republican leaders and their operatives have been betting on this very outcome. They intend to make Obama’s presidency a cautionary tale. Their aim is not only to win back political power in Congress and the White House but also to ensure that the generation of young black and brown Americans inspired by his ascendancy won’t aspire to similar heights.
With the mainstream media asleep at the wheel, recycling Republican talking points and not looking deeper to see the reasons for youth malaise, the GOP is clearly accomplishing its goal.
But Obama and Democrats aren’t ceding the midterms quite yet.
Kelly Ward, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says, “We are working aggressively to increase turnout among African-American and Latino millennials in this midterm, particularly with an early field effort. Our field team of diverse young men and women not only reflects their communities, but they’re also working to get young people engaged in the critical issues that affect their lives.”
The Harvard IOP survey showed that the president’s own approval rating among young people jumped to 47 percent, up from 41 percent last November. Young voters also agreed with Democrats on issues such as raising the minimum wage, closing the gender gap in pay and addressing income inequality. But the constant rancor in our political discourse—driven by Republican opposition to this first African-American president—has left millennials distrusting the political process.
If the Republican Party succeeds come November, it will have found a new systematic way to disenfranchise voters—not through violence, poll taxes or purging voter rolls but through apathy.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.