There’s no disputing that Republicans are surly these days.
With the exception of South Carolina, turnout among GOP voters has been tepid. Hordes of commentators, me included, have argued at length that this apathetic grumpiness reflects a deep dissatisfaction with the Republican field.
Worse, many Republicans recognize that their cantankerousness over their choices makes things worse. It’s a vicious cycle. As George Orwell once wrote: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” A bad candidate can win with enthusiastic voters and a good candidate can lose with unenthusiastic ones. But a bad candidate with unenthusiastic voters is like a submarine with screen doors: a guaranteed wreck.
Without minimizing the plight of the Republicans, there may be a glimmer of hope in a single overlooked fact: Democrats may have the same problem.
Generally speaking, Americans of all political stripes hate politics and politicians right now. Republicans are merely the focus of everyone’s attention because that’s where the action is. Everyone knows who the Democratic nominee will be. This gives Barack Obama all sorts of advantages. He can seem presidential and above the fray, he can raise money for the general election without getting bloodied by a primary challenger, and he can spend his time and resources unifying his party.
But unity and enthusiasm are not the same thing. Everyone in the family can agree to eat Aunt Sally’s leftover casserole, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be excited about it.
Obama won in 2008 thanks to almost unprecedented voter enthusiasm, particularly among two key constituencies: young voters and black voters.
Take the youth vote. The whippersnappers cost John McCain the election. Obama won young voters by a two-to-one margin. If the voting age were 35, McCain would have won. Youth support was also a crucial source of energy for the Obama campaign, fueling all of the social-media buzz and burnishing Obama’s image as a change candidate in what was the mother of all change elections.
Almost four years later, the young people are less excited about Obama, and about politics in general.
Why? Because the “Great Recession” under Obama has been disproportionately brutal for younger workers. Last summer was the worst job market for young people since 1948. In 2010, the unemployment rate for college graduates 24 and younger hit an all-time high.
The youth unemployment rate is improving, but the mood of young people isn’t where Obama needs it. A recent Harvard survey found that a majority of 18- to 29-year-old voters believe the country is going in the wrong direction, and a plurality of young Americans believe Obama will lose.