fb-pixel Skip to main content

Many millennials taking a pass on midterm elections

“If you ask any number of my friends, they don’t even know how to apply for an absentee ballot or that you even could,” said Suren Nannapaneni, an 18-year-old sophomore.John Boal for The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — Khalil Commissiong, a 22-year-old student at George Washington University, voted for President Obama in 2012. But, like many in the millennial generation, he does not plan to vote in this year’s midterm elections.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of truth in politics,” he said.

That harsh view of politics could play a major role in which party is dominant Tuesday night. A Harvard University Institute of Politics poll released Wednesday found only 26 percent of millennials — 18 to 29-year-olds — definitely plan to vote. That is about half the rate of voters 30 or older in midterm election cycles.


But even that modest rate of participation translates into a significant voting bloc. Peter Levine, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, estimates that with a turnout rate comparable to 2010, millennials again nationally will probably make up about 11 percent of the total votes cast this year.

“Republicans should be trying to make a play for [young voters], and Democrats should be trying to hold on to them,” Levine said.

In interviews on the George Washington campus a few blocks from the White House, students gave a variety of reasons for sitting out the election, including disinterest and the difficulty in casting an absentee vote.

One of those who definitely planned to vote was Suren Nannapaneni, an 18-year-old sophomore who sent in an absentee ballot for his home state of Massachusetts. Nannapaneni almost has to be an outlier given that he interns for Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat.

“If you ask any number of my friends, they don’t even know how to apply for an absentee ballot or that you even could,” he said.

Analysts said millennials offer a world of opportunity for the Republican and Democratic parties. The Harvard survey, for example, said millennials are civically engaged, with 67 percent reporting they would volunteer for a community service project. That helps explain why strategists in both major parties are hoping that their efforts to turn out millennials could be a key to victory in several races.


Whatever the overall turnout rate, analysts said, it seems clear that the millennial vote is up for grabs, compared to the past several elections.

Since 2008, millennials have been considered a consistently Democratic bloc, but the Harvard study said 51 percent of likely young voters say they prefer a Republican-controlled Congress. This is a significant shift from 2010, when the same age group supported a Democrat-controlled Congress in what was considered to be a Republican wave year.

Following Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential loss to Obama, the GOP identified youth voters as a demographic area where it needed to improve. Ahead of the midterm elections, the party implemented a more organized approach to canvassing on college campuses, built new digital tools, and hired a national youth director.

Yet when both parties launched efforts this year to reach out to millennial voters, there were notable fumbles.

The White House tried to show it was in sync with younger voters by boasting about its accomplishments with an Internet-style “listicle” of facts about millennials and the economy, along with graphics written predominantly in emoji, the picture characters popular in text messaging.

The administration came off more like a middle-aged parent trying to appear hip. Some millennials went online to say they were offended that the report called them the most educated generation in history but used overly simplistic communication to reach them.


“It can be insulting to us because they’re pandering to us without real solutions,” said Evan Feinberg, president of the conservative youth group Generation Opportunity.

The White House removed the emojis from the report days after releasing it.

On the GOP side, the College Republican National Committee launched a video called “Say Yes to the Candidate,” a parody of a wedding dress shopping reality show called “Say Yes to the Dress.”

In the ad, a woman tries on a fashionable dress symbolizing the Republican candidate and loves it. However, her mother tries to convince her to go with an old-fashioned, lace number, representing the Democrat.

“It’s expensive and a little outdated, but I know best,” her mother says.

It became the butt of jokes on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.”

In addition to those mistakes, Levine said, both parties failed to make a push with millennial voters who do not attend college.

Organizations such as the League of Young Voters use technology and cultural events to engage millennials who are overlooked by college-focused organizing. LaShunda Campbell, a spokeswoman for the League of Young Voters, said the group focuses on low-income areas in cities and registers voters at musical events.

This summer the group had a big push at Beyonce and Jay-Z’s tour, and it plans to text young voters on Election Day to remind them to go to the polls.


Even though the turnout expectations are low for young voters nationwide, millennials could make a difference in key Senate races.

In Colorado, where Democrat Mark Udall is being challenged by Republican Cory Gardner, millennials have a history of turning out at the polls at greater rates than the national average. About 60 percent of registered youth voters in Colorado went to the polls in 2010.

In North Carolina, where Democrat Kay Hagan is facing Republican Thom Tillis, the outcome could be in the hands of the highest youth populations in the country, with 1.4 million 18- to 29-year-olds, according to the Tufts center.

Cat Zakrzewski can be reached at cat.zakrzewski@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Cat_Zakrzewski.