Why the Pop-Culture President Won’t Re-Energize the Youth Vote

I didn’t vote in the first two presidential elections that I was of age to participate in. Why not? Well, the truth is that I simply didn’t care. I didn’t think it really mattered which candidate won the presidency. To me, elections weren’t worth the time to stand in a long voting line and cast a ballot. I had better things to do. There was always new music to buy, movies to see, and concerts to go to.

Like many people in their early twenties, I lived in a bubble of self-interest. Political news and current events were the last things on my mind. Life was more about keeping myself entertained. In college, I could have told you which videos were in regular rotation on MTV, who was scheduled to appear on David Letterman’s show on any given weeknight, and everything about the upcoming summer blockbuster movies. Yet, I couldn’t have for the life of me told you what was going on in Somalia with Black Hawk Down. I hadn’t a clue the meaning behind terms like Whitewater and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I wasn’t even entirely sure who Newt Gingrich was, other than that he was portrayed occasionally by Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live.

Yes, I was so indifferent to the world around me that I had no reason or motivation to weave myself into the fabric of our democratic process. Pop-culture was far more important to me.

I don’t believe my experience was all that unique, and I really don’t think it’s all that different than today’s youthful mindset. Yet, just three and a half years ago, there was a man who managed to do something miraculous and energize the youth vote in his favor. Then U.S. senator, Barack Obama, enchanted our young Americans with his energy, glowing speeches, charm, and charisma. His campaign presented an image of him that young voters thought was cool and stylish. America found him to be fresh and entertaining. Sure, they might have not completely understood what all he was about as a candidate, but they knew they wanted to be a part of the spectacle at a time of war-weariness and Bush fatigue.

The youth vote and their grass-roots efforts were instrumental in handing Obama a historic victory. It’s the precise reason the president is still courting the pop-culture crowd. He’s appearing on late night talk shows to yuck it up with hip comedians. He’s offering up dinner with actor George Clooney as a fund-raising incentive. He’s been touring college campuses and serenading audiences with Al Green songs. It’s clearly important to his campaign that he keeps that “cool” factor going strong, and frankly… it makes perfect sense politically.

Obama does very well on that platform. It earns him style points with a portion of the electorate that otherwise wouldn’t care all that much about politics or the state of the country.  It drives Republicans crazy, not just because they sometimes find the appearances to be unbecoming of a president (a legitimate complaint that I happen to agree with), but because they also know that it’s a stage where they simply can’t compete with the president.

Republicans, for the most part, just aren’t all that cool. And let’s face it… The entertainment media isn’t compelled to help them appear as such. Hosts will never embarrassingly fawn over Mitt Romney on entertainment talk shows the way they do with President Obama. You’ll never hear a comedian like Jimmy Kimmel declare that it’s “hard to make fun of” any Republican, like he recently said about President Obama.

My advice to Mitt Romney would be not to even bother challenging President Obama in the court of coolness. He shouldn’t go on Saturday Night Live. He shouldn’t emulate the John Kerry of 2004 by wind-surfing, riding motorcycles with a leather jacket on, and throwing the old pigskin back and forth with his vice presidential running mate. He shouldn’t submit a video clip for the American Idol audience.

I say this for two reasons: First of all, it won’t work. Secondly, it’s not going to matter because the pop-culture/youth vote will not turn out for Obama the way they did in 2008.

In November of 2008, the economy had just begun spiraling downward. Its lasting effect on the country was unknown not just by young America, but across the board. People knew it was a bad situation, but they didn’t have an understanding of how directly they would be impacted. Up until then, the biggest campaign issue was the Bush administration’s handling of the War on Terror – a topic that struck a chord across college campuses as part of the youthful idealism of anti-war sediment. That demographic viewed Washington as a group of war-mongering, oil-thirsty, stuffed shirts who didn’t have their best interests at heart. This caricature not only hurt the Republican Party, but it also hurt Hillary Clinton who was weary of the hypocrisy she would surely be accused of if she took an anti-war stance following her strong support of military action in Iraq.

This opened the door for the outspoken and energetic Barack Obama who told young Americans what they wanted to hear. The Illinois senator was so new to national politics that he couldn’t be held accountable for the decisions made by previous congresses in the prosecution of the war. His competence on the microphone, irresistible charm, and million dollar smile let him be whatever young America wanted him to be, and they gave him their unconditional support.

Three and a half years later, the country has changed dramatically. The same people who walked through neighborhoods and campuses for Obama and volunteered tirelessly for his campaign have their college degrees but they don’t have careers. They’re living at home and working as waiters and waitresses because they can’t find anything better. They’re watching their parents’ family-businesses struggle to stay afloat. Those still in college are being sat down by their mother and father and told they’re going to have a hard time continuing to pay their tuition.

The realities of this stagnant economy are being felt by young America. The facts are staggering, as a recent ad from American Crossroads pointed out. Half of recent college graduates in this country are now jobless or underemployed. A report last year stated that 85% of them had moved back in with their parents. Student loan debt in this country exceeds one trillion dollars. Even if young adults in this country don’t understand the underlying causes of these problems (and frankly, I don’t think they do), they do understand that their president has been in office for nearly four years and their situations have not improved. No number of late night guest appearances, campus rallies, and comedy skits is going to change that.

One would think that young voters would be fed up with the situation and demand a new direction, but I really don’t think Mitt Romney will be on the receiving end of a mass exodus. Sure, he’s in a good position to sway at least some of them over. He can do so by spreading the message that he’s not running for president to dazzle them with his charm or be their friend, but rather to restore an economy that lets them rise to their potential. In all likelihood though, young America won’t defect over to Mitt Romney’s side of the aisle. They’ll stay home.

You see, most of that generation perceives the presidency of George W. Bush as a complete and utter failure. They were taught by the media and their college professors for years that Bush essentially ruined our country. When Barack Obama came along, he became their savior – a larger than life super-hero who would bring peace to the world and restore international respect for our nation. He woke up young Americans and got them engaged.

Yet, even the most optimistic of Obama supporters have now come to the realization that things have not changed for the better, even if they won’t admit it. So, if President Obama can’t make things different, no one can. That’s how I believe they look at it, anyway. And with that mindset comes complacency – the same kind of complacency that I experienced in the early 90s because I didn’t think elections mattered.

A good portion of young America will stay home in November, not as a protest vote against the president, but because they’ve accepted the new normal as a long-term inevitability that no president can change. They’ve entered the real world, but to them its become an extension of the world they knew before they graduated. The bar for success has been set so low by President Obama that getting used to falling short of their potential could become an almost acceptable outcome.

If that’s true, it’s a bad sign for our culture, but possibly a gift for the Romney campaign.

 

Author Bio:

John Daly couldn't have cared less about world events and politics until the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks changed his perspective. Since then, he's been deeply engaged in the news of the day with a particular interest in how that news is presented. Realizing the importance of the media in a free, democratic society, John has long felt compelled to identify media injustices when he sees them. With a B.S. in Business Administration, and a 16 year background in software and web development, John has found that his real passion is for writing. His first novel, entitled "From a Dead Sleep", is now on sale! He lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and two children. Like John on Facebook. Follow John on Twitter.
Author website: http://www.johndalybooks.com/
  • wally

    Good article John. The thing I will add is that many people do not follow politics until it is time to vote. This apathy isn’t just for the young, it also applies to any working family who places emphasis on making a living and getting kids to school etc. I was one of those. I’ve changed. Now I am retired and am more interested and totally discussed in  the political scene. I hope you are right that the young who voted for Obama will stay home or vote for anyone but Obama. I’m not so sure. Maybe the young and other Obama supporters will believe Obama when he plays the “Its not my fault chant”. If that happens, it will reinforce my opinion that many people are totally ignorant and are sold on “Give me my Obama bucks”

  • NANCYE

    From the article:

    I didn’t vote in the first two presidential elections that I was of age to participate in. Why not? Well, the truth is that I simply didn’t care. I didn’t think it really mattered which candidate won the presidency.

    **********************************

    Gee – times have changed I guess.  You had to be 21 years old to vote when I came along, and I haven’t missed voting in a single one.  Two bad you missed twice because you didn’t give a damn.   And I’m supposed to be impressed with what you write?  Not!!!  In fact, I’m sorry I read this sorry article!!!

    • Brhurdle

      Let me see if I understand this – you’re offended because Mr. Daly didn’t vote when he was first eligible. If you’re really honest, did you understand the issues or did you vote an ideaology inherited from some college professor that couldn’t think his way out of a wet paper bag. Based on my own personal experience, I was too involved in my first job out of college to even be aware of politics in the 60s nor did I know how to vote to represent my self interest. I’ll wager that you cast your vote based on being courted by some political hack as opposed to being committed to a candidate’s leadership capability – but still you feel superior.  Look in the mirror lady, the picture is not all that pretty.

    • John Daly

      So… ignorance and disinterest during one’s youth disqualifies them from ever having anything interesting to say for the rest of their lives. Good to know.

  • Duckworks

    And then, there are these startling revelations, via Wikileaks:

    http://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/339396_re-insight-the-dems-and-dirty-tricks-internal-use-only-pls.html

    Stuffing ballot boxes…?!

  • Michael

    “I couldn’t have for the life of me told you what was going on in Bosnia with Black Hawk Down.”

    That could be because the incident portrayed in Black Hawk Down took place in Somalia.

    However, knowing that you are a very intelligent guy, I suspect you wrote it that way just to make your point.  And it is a good point indeed.

    I often wonder if part of what makes that 18-25 voting bloc so stupid is that most of them haven’t had to take on much responsibility.  We can thank government entitlement programs for that. 

    It’s sad that what you say about the ignorance of so many young Americans is true, but I agree that Mitt Romney should not try to appealing to them by acting cool.  I hate it when politicians do that.  We have too much at stake.  As a nation we are spending like crazy while going broke, like the idiots who spend $5,000 on wheels and tires to put on a $1,500 raggedy-a$$ car just so they can cruise the neighborhood (whenever they can afford the gas) trying to look cool, while their kids are on WIC and their wives buy food with stamps (or the debit-style card they use now). 

    I hope, as you say, that Romney focuses on what he knows and does best; economics and management. 

    Very good article.  I hope Romney’s team reads it.

    • JohnDalyAuthor

      Uh… yeah, I meant to do that. ;) Actually, that was a mistype on my part which you caught. Thanks! I’m surprised I botched that since I’ve seen the movie a number of times.

      • Michael

        It happens to all of us.  Still a great article, and you’re a solid guy to admit it was a mistake instead of taking the easy way out. :)

    • A Woman

      Oh! I feel silly, now. I reread that sentence twice with my first read-through and couldn’t “see” what was wrong but knew something was off. I think my eyes were catching the missing “or” but my sleep-deprived brain was stuck in, “Huh?”

  • http://www.e-marketingpartner.com/ Bob

    John, you missed out on one guy who could have brought the youth vote.  Ron Paul is very popular with that demographic, but obviously not for the same reasons.

    I’m not sure Mitt Romney is excited about Mitt Romney. 

    You make some great points though.  In fact, I think it will be worse than you speculate.  It won’t just be the young people that stay home.  Obama was able to stir emotions in many democratic voters and he won’t be able to conjure that kind of feeling again.  There will be many democrats of all ages that will stay home this year.

  • GlenFS

    John, good analysis of the youth “voter” mindset.  Sad that they don’t really see what he’s done to their future, but if it means they stay home, that’s their next best course of action.