The Harvard Public Opinion Project’s 2013 fall poll, administered a year after the 2012 elections, provided a wealth of data related to registration and voting patterns among millennials. The most interesting stories emerge first in comparing the 2013 poll’s results with numbers from the fall 2009 poll and second, in examining the differences between racial groups in their engagment for the political process. Generally, trends point to declining enthusiasm for political engagement, especially among certain minority groups.
To start, the percentage of respondents who said they were registered to vote dropped from 79 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in 2013. Similarly, those said they actually voted in the most recent presidential election dropped from 71 to 53 percent.
However, the more interesting analysis comes when voter registration and turnout is further analyzed by race. The categories used were white (non-Hispanic), Hispanic, African-American (non-Hispanic) and other. African Americans were the most likely both to say that they were registered in the 2012 election (71 percent) and that they voted (65 percent), compared to 68 and 58 percent, respectively, for white respondents, the next closest racial group.
The Myth of the “Obama Effect” on Black Participation
It would be easy to dismiss these results as the “Obama effect” created by a charismatic black candidate who happened to run in both elections. Unfortunately, HPOP’s polls before 2009, for technical reasons, aren’t comparable with newer polls. However, external data suggests this is not an effect isolated to the 2008 and 2012 elections.
In May 2013, the US Census Bureau released a report analyzing voter turnout by race and produced charts showing longer-term trends. Note that they surveyed all eligible voters, not only those between the ages of 18 and 29 as in the HPOP poll.
This chart shows that black voter turnout has been steadily increasing over the past two decades, long before Obama was a political force. While this trend has been noted widely, especially after the census data was released, there is little consensus about the specific causes.
Declining Turn-Out and Enthusiasm Among Hispanic Youth
The above data also highlight a different, more sobering trend: low voter turnout among the Hispanic population. In 2009, 64 percent of Hispanics said they were registered to vote in the 2008 elections, as opposed to 77 percent of whites and 79 percent of African Americans. In 2013, the numbers decreased dramatically: 43 percent of Hispanics said they were registered to vote in the 2012 elections as compared with 71 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of whites. While all races experienced a 2008-to-2012 drop among those registered and those who actually voted, Hispanics saw the greatest dip, at 23 points (compared to 8 points for African Americans and 9 points for whites).
Census analysis showed that 48 percent of all Hispanic eligible voters participated in the 2012 election, but according to the HPOP poll, among Hispanic millennials that figure was 10 points lower. Thus, Hispanic voters, already at low turnout levels, are even less likely to vote between the ages of 18 and 29. This figure is especially worrisome given that the percentage voting rates for Millennial African Americans (65 percent) in 2012 was essentially the same as overall voting rates (66.2 percent). (Interestingly, millennial whites also voted at lower rates than the overall white population, at 58 percent to 64.1 percent.)
Recent media speculation has focused on the power of the Hispanic voting bloc, currently estimated at 23 million, and with Cuban-American Marco Rubio contemplating a 2016 presidential run, the power of the Hispanic vote, especially among millennials, will be crucial. While 50 percent of Hispanic millennials identify as Democrats, a substantial minority (23 percent) say they are Republicans. 23 percent say they are independent, leaving open the possibility of a Republican-dominated Hispanic voting bloc.
The final take-away from this poll with regards to voter registration and turnout is one of urgency. Millennial turnout, which increased for Obama’s election in 2008, is in danger of decreasing even more. In 2009, 60 percent of respondents said they would be likely to vote in the 2010 midterm elections, but only 20 percent actually did. In the 2013 fall poll, an abysmal 51 percent said they would be likely to vote in 2014. Without an Obama-like candidate to rally the youth vote, or more serious efforts to engage millennial voters, the turnout may continue to decline.