The Slatest

Michelle Obama Launches Splashy New Midterm Effort, but Not the One Democrats Wanted

Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama discusses her forthcoming memoir, titled Becoming, during the 2018 American Library Association Annual Conference in June.
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Michelle Obama is wading into the midterms—but not necessarily in the way Democrats had hoped.

The former first lady launched a voter registration initiative Thursday, called When We All Vote. The midterm-themed effort kicked off with a public service announcement featuring her and a slew of celebrity co-chairs, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Hanks, and Janelle Monáe. According to Politico, additional PSAs featuring other big names are expected to follow, as are a series of voter-registration and get-out-the-vote events leading up to a “late-September crescendo of rallies and trainings.”

The group is a strictly nonpartisan affair, much to Democrats’ chagrin. Michelle Obama reportedly hasn’t ruled out making separate campaign stops for a Democratic candidate or two before Election Day. But such appearances would seem doubtful at a time when her group is trying to stay above the partisan fray, and given her and her husband’s general reluctance to take center stage in the age of Trump. More likely, her GOTV efforts mean she’ll remain MIA on the midterm campaign trail.

On one hand, that’s a big loss for Democrats. Michelle Obama remains deeply popular on the left, and more popular than Barack Obama among the general population. She’s capable of uncorking a stemwinder when the situation calls for it, as she demonstrated multiple times during the 2016 campaign. She’d be natural on the stump next to a wide range of Democratic candidates, particularly many of the record number of women running for the House this year.

On the other, her voter-registration effort should still be a boon to Democrats. While ostensibly aimed at registering all Americans to vote, the star-studded PSAs are clearly tailored toward young voters, a demo that skews Democratic. (“Four million Americans turn 18 this year, that’s huge,” Monáe says in the PSA. “And we need every last one of them to register and vote.”) The Obama-led effort should pair nicely with other youth-focused efforts already under way, including those by the Parkland shooting survivors, who made voter registration a major theme of their March for Our Lives demonstrations, and by Tom Steyer’s NextGen America, which has become a near-constant presence on college campuses.

Already, those efforts appear to be working. In April, pollsters at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that a whopping 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds—and 51 percent of self-identified Democrats in that group—said they would “definitely” vote this November, a dramatic increase from the past two midterms. And a new analysis out Thursday from TargetSmart, a Democratic firm, found a small but significant jump in youth voter registration nationwide following the Parkland shooting in February, including sizable gains in some key battleground states like Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Anything that converts those trends into actual turnout on Election Day should excite Democrats, whether the effort is nonpartisan or not.