How Scott Brown Did It (Or Why 2010 Is No 2008)

Posted by Amanda M. Fairbanks

headshotDuring the 2008 presidential race, more 18- to 29-year-olds turned out to vote than in any election since 1972. When voters under 30 cast their ballots, they did so in overwhelming favor of Barack Obama’s candidacy.

CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which is run out of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.

And their data from Tuesday’s special election, which decided the next senator from Massachusetts, is more than a little worrisome.

We asked its director, Peter Levine, to shed some light on CIRCLE’s findings and how what happened in Massachusetts may well predict the mood of young voters in November's midterm elections.

GOOD: Tell us a little bit about CIRCLE and why your polling of young people is basically the best stuff out there?

PETER LEVINE: CIRCLE is the leading academic research center that studies young Americans' civic and political engagement. We are not only interested in voting; we also study young people's volunteering, their use of electronic media, their social activism, their religious participation, and many related issues. We investigate these topics because we believe that the future of democracy depends on the next generation of citizens, and they need skills, confidence, and experience to participate.

In the area of voting, we are known for releasing the only day-after estimates of youth voter turnout in major elections. Later, when more data are available, we conduct in-depth studies. For example, we have shown that half the young population does not attend college, and they are still basically left out of American politics.

GOOD: Your findings report that 15 percent of Massachusetts citizens between the ages of 18-29 turned out to vote. Did this figure surprise you, especially since turnout for voters over 30 was much higher?

PL: The result is disappointing—not from a partisan, Democratic perspective, but for anyone who wants young people to have a voice. I wouldn't say that the turnout was completely surprising. Under-30 voters in Massachusetts are very Democratic and liberal right now. Seventy-eight percent voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Polls conducted before this week's election showed Republican Scott Brown ahead.  But he could only be ahead if core Democratic constituencies—such as youth—were planning to stay at home.

GOOD: Young voters in Massachusetts sure did stay home. Compared to the 52 percent that showed up to vote in 2008, did Tuesday’s turnout surprise you?

PL: Turnout is always highest (for all age groups) in presidential elections; it was extraordinarily high in 2008. Thus, a decline in 2010 as compared to 2008 was inevitable. But I think the degree of decline was especially disappointing.

GOOD: To what do you attribute the disparity—can it be explained by the special election alone?

The fact that it was a special election was part of it—you have to remind people of the date and the need to vote. I think it was especially hard to campaign to young voters, because those who attend college were not on campus during the past month, since it was winter vacation. Although a majority of college students register at home (and not in their college towns), campaigning on campuses is usually quite effective.

I also think ideology played a role. As I said earlier, Massachusetts young voters lean extraordinarily to the Democratic side right now. But Democrats seem to be demoralized in general.

GOOD: Are there any lessons that Martha Coakley and Scott Brown's campaigns might have borrowed or better employed from then-candidate Obama's strategy with young voters?

PL: We know from very rigorous research that young people respond well to being "asked" to vote. If someone knocks on their door, or if a human being actually calls them up and is willing to discuss the election, turnout goes way up. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Coakley campaign did very little grassroots campaigning after the primary. The Brown campaign may have done more, and that could explain why they got 40 percent of the youth vote—twice the 20 percent that John McCain won in Massachusetts in 2008. By the way, Scott Brown should be congratulated for that share.

GOOD: If Coakley had better galvanized the youth voter demographic, might the outcome have been different?

PL: Yes. It was a close election. But I think that if young people had constituted the same share of voters in 2010 as they did in 2008, Martha Coakley would probably now be Massachusetts' next U.S. Senator.

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