Polls show waning political engagement among younger voters — but actor Kal Penn and actress America Ferrera said on Wednesday that they don't see it.
"I actually reject the notion that there's an enthusiasm gap, and I'll tell you why," said Penn, the star of the Harold & Kumar movies and former White House staffer who has traveled to colleges across the country to support President Obama this year. "The crowds that we had in 2007 and 2008, both in the primary and in the general election, are the exact same crowds I'm seeing now."
Ferrera, the Ugly Betty actress who leads the Hispanic-engagement group Voto Latino, agreed that young people are fired up.
"We're living the lack of jobs, the debt when we come out of college, the inability to find a job even being a barista," she said, adding: "The truth is, there is an enormous amount of energy in this generation and we have more tools than we've ever had to communicate directly with each other."
Their comments were part of a panel — first held in Tampa and then again in Charlotte — sponsored by National Journal, The Atlantic, and Microsoft, entitled “Conversations With the Next Generation.” A star-studded list of speakers, including actress Alfre Woodard, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, discussed youth engagement and Obama administration policies, such as increasing education funding, that are of interest to young voters.
Penn and other progressives have good reason to hope that youth stay as engaged as they did in 2008. Obama took 66 percent of the 18-to-29-year-old vote in 2008. And since 15 million more millennials have turned 18 in the last four years, Democrats are counting on youth voters to keep them competitive in battleground states.
Statistics, however, don't necessarily paint as positive a picture as the two stars. Just 58 percent of registered 18-to-29-year-olds said they were “definitely likely” to vote when asked in July of this year — down 20 points from the 78 percent who said the same in October 2008.
The economic recession left the country's millennial voters saddled with staggering student debt and facing markedly high unemployment rates.
Republicans, however, have not yet fully capitalized on the youth vote. Going into the conventions, Obama held a 64 percent-31 percent lead over Mitt Romney among voters under 35, according to a recent Gallup/USA Today poll. The Romney campaign is working to attract such voters by stressing its plans to bolster the economy.