Darrell Townsend is an African-American from High Point, N.C., where manufacturing jobs have disappeared. “My city is dying,” he said. Townsend used to be a custom-wheel craftsman, but now he’s unemployed. He was on the streets of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte—selling Obama campaign buttons. He believes the president “didn’t have nothin’ to do with these companies leaving the United States.”
The recession hit young people entering the workforce and black communities especially hard—and yet these two demographics are the most likely to vote for President Obama. The overall theme emerging from interviews among both groups: Obama represents them.
Unemployment in North Carolina has run at nearly 10 percent throughout the president’s first term, but blacks and young people say they identify with Obama better than with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The Obama campaign message that Romney only cares about the wealthy sticks with Townsend, for one. “[Obama’s] trying to help everybody … he don’t pick out one group of people,” he said. And he doesn’t place blame on Obama for the economic downturn. “The man can’t fix the country in one term,” said Townsend.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate for millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) in August was 12.7 percent compared to the national rate of 8.1 percent. Unemployment among African-Americans in August was 14.1 percent. Among 18- to 29-year-old African-Americans, unemployment hit 22.4 percent.
Not surprisingly, African-Americans’ median net worth, a measurement of wealth, is at its lowest level in 25 years, in large part due to the housing crash. For those under 35, median net worth fell 37 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yet this year polls indicate black voters have thrown zero percent of their support behind Romney. Loyalty to the first black president is strong, but President George W. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote.
The data say millennials also are likely to stick with the president. “It doesn’t matter what poll you look at, they’re far more pro-Obama than any other age group or generation,” said Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic strategist.
On most issues, millennials are more liberal than previous generations. They experienced “socialization” during the times when the Republican Party was very unpopular, according to Scott Keeter from the Pew Research Center. But on a couple issues they veer from the liberal wavelength, tending to be “pro-market” on Social Security, said Neil Howe of Lifecourse Associates—and pro-life, even as they support same-sex marriage, according to Pew’s research. Those shifts are more reason that groups like Generation Opportunity, a relatively new organization headed by a former member of the Bush administration, are reaching out to unemployed, discontented millennials and helping them register to vote.
In this election millennial voters could be more of a swing demographic than African-American voters. They’re more upset with Obama’s unfulfilled promises: A recent survey from the Harvard Institute of Politics showed about 58 percent of millennials disapproving Obama’s handling of the economy.
Colmon Elridge, the executive vice president of the Young Democrats of America, at a gathering of young Democrats in Charlotte admitted that millennials see politics through the lens of The West Wing TV show. “It set up the expectation that everything gets resolved in an hour, or a two-part episode,” Elridge said.
Obama won millennials by 34 points in 2008, but that cushion has been dropping ever since. And many young Democrats at the party’s convention in Charlotte feel the party is taking them for granted: “It’s [expletive] that the College Republicans got to speak at their convention and the Democrats didn’t get to speak at theirs,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was elected to Congress in 2006 when he was 33. Murphy, one of the Blue Dog Democrats, lost his seat in 2010.
Pew’s Keeter pointed out that polls in 2008 showed that Obama could have won comfortably without millennials. But now, with a tighter race and likely lower turnout, if Obama loses even a margin of millennial voters, that could spell trouble for him.
“[Obama] needs that margin,” said Teixeira. “The more you look at it, it’s like every group is important. But I do think you could make a case that millennials are very important.”