Democratic operatives in Oregon have identified a troubling problem for the party in future elections—apathetic young Dems statewide.
“Young voters were a particularly dark spot for Democrats—across the state, 18-to-29-year-old Republicans beat Democrats by the largest margin of any age group,” wrote Josh Berezin, an analyst for the labor-funded Our Oregon advocacy group.
Berezin also wrote in a recent post-mortem after the November election, “This could be the harbinger of a real problem for 2012, as young Democratic voters’ enthusiasm in 2008 was critical [to] Democratic wins at every level.”
Democratic turnout weakness in the 18-to-29 age group—a difference of 4.5 percentage points compared to GOP voters in the same age range—is somewhat surprising, given the high-profile efforts of the Oregon Bus Project.
In October, for instance, Bus Project executive director Jefferson Smith, a Democratic state representative from east Portland, appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show to promote the Bus’ widely publicized pre-election “Trick or Vote” program. The effort aims to entice Oregonians to vote.
But the Bus, a nonpartisan nonprofit co-founded by Smith in 2003, spun its wheels on a key voter-registration goal assignment prior to Trick or Vote.
“We were stunned because all the groups were talking about how voter registration was critically important,” says Patrick Green, director of the advocacy group Our Oregon.
Three groups—the Bus Project, Our Oregon and the Oregon Student Association—committed to registering 20,000 new voters each in September and October, Green says.
The groups saw new registrants as crucial to making up both for Republicans’ historical turnout advantage and the anticipated national Republican wave in 2010.
Green says Our Oregon agreed to raise money for the Bus to do its registration work. (It costs anywhere from $5 to $8 to register a new voter, he says.)
Both Our Oregon and OSA hit their targets, registering 20,000 new voters each, Green says. But the Bus came up short, signing up only about 7,000 new voters in September and October.
“I’m disappointed about that,” Caitlin Baggott, who led the Bus registration efforts, says.
Baggott says registering new voters late in the election cycle is particularly challenging.
“Our Oregon was really helpful in providing funding, and so was SEIU,” Baggott says, referring to the 45,000-member Service Employees International Union.
“[But] trying to ramp up in September when no experienced organizers are available is tough,” Baggott says.
Baggott adds that despite the failure to meet short-term targets, the Bus met or exceeded annual registration targets its board set earlier, including those for January’s special election on Measures 66 and 67.
“We have a great track record for meeting our goals,” she says. “But what we see is that late funding is really difficult to use effectively.”
Our Oregon’s Green says he was disappointed that the Bus missed its target.
“There was an enthusiasm gap this year, especially among young voters,” Green says. “It meant that making sure that every young voter was registered and turned out was critical.”
Green also highlights the massive gap between younger and older voters.
Only about 40 percent of registered Oregon voters under 30 bothered to fill out a ballot; 88 percent of registered voters aged 60 to 69 inked theirs.
“If youth turnout had been anywhere near [that of] older voters, the governor’s race wouldn’t have been so close,” Green says, citing Democrat John Kitzhaber’s narrow 22,000-vote victory over Republican Chris Dudley.
“I’m sure the Bus is thinking about how they increase goals for 2012,” he says, “because the stakes are high.”
FACT: More Oregon voters under 30 are registered either as unaffiliated or with a minor party than with either major party, according to state filings. That does not hold true for any other age group.