Young Voters Are Skipping Midterms and Marijuana Won’t Help

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President Obama and Democrats will have a tough time counting on young voters in this November’s midterm elections, a new poll says.

Young voters are increasingly unlikely to cast a ballot this fall, according to a poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics released Tuesday. The survey found a growing sense of political apathy among adults under 30, driven by a lack of trust in political process and institutions.

And one issue that Democrats have hoped would drive youth turnout, marijuana legalization, might be more complicated than that.

Here’s a closer look at the poll’s three main takeaways:

1. Bad news for Democrats

Young people helped elect President Obama to office in 2008 and 2012. But this year, they’re not so eager to vote.

Just 23 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said they will definitely cast a ballot in the congressional elections in November. By comparison, 45 percent of voters under 30 showed up in 2012, with Obama winning six in ten.


Source: Harvard Institute of Politics

Harvard’s midterm estimate has dropped 10 percentage points since last fall and it’s eight points lower than the poll’s numbers before the 2010 midterms, when Republicans won control of the House.

There’s a lot at stake this November, as Democrats are in danger of losing control of the Senate. In presidential election years, young people have become a key part of Obama’s winning coalition and given an edge to Democrats in Congress. But millennials traditionally stay home in midterm election years, and this one is no different.

In addition, the young voters who said they would show up come from traditionally Republican groups. Forty-four percent of those who said they voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 said they will definitely vote this year, compared to 35 percent who voted for Obama. Young men were nine points more likely to vote than women. Whites were also more likely to vote than African-Americans and Hispanics.

The one silver lining for Democrats? President Obama’s approval ratings have jumped six percentage points to 47 percent from a historic low of 41 percent last November.

2. A lack of trust

Young Americans were already cynical about the country’s political process and institutions. And the problem has only gotten worse in the last year.

Trust in the president has dipped from 39 percent to 32 percent, trust in the military went from 57 percent to 47 percent, and trust in the Supreme Court fell from 40 percent to 36 percent. The decline in trust was driven by changing attitudes among self-described Democrats and independents, according to Harvard.

The number of young people who say elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons has jumped eight points since 2010 to 62 percent, another indicator that adults under 30 are losing faith in government. Twenty-nine percent say that political involvement rarely has any tangible results, up from 23 percent from four years ago.

3. Marijuana isn’t the key

Legalized marijuana is more popular than ever, leading some political consultants to believe that the issue could be used as a youth turnout mechanism.

But the Harvard poll paints a more mixed picture. Forty-four percent of those under 30 say they support legalizing marijuana, 23 percent strongly so. Thirty-four percent oppose it, and 22 percent are not sure. That’s much different from what the Pew Research Center found earlier this year, which is that 69 percent of adults ages 18 to 33 want pot to be legal.

Harvard found that millennials don’t think monolithically about weed. Almost half of young Democrats back legalized pot, but legalization also drew support from 32 percent of Republicans.

And the desire for legalization isn’t stronger among non-white millennials, who are often more likely to be arrested for marijuana. Forty-nine percent of whites back legalization, more than 10 points higher than blacks (38 percent) and Hispanics (37 percent).

All of this shows that marijuana is a more complicated political issue for young voters than what many in politics believe.

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