Column: Youth Voters Tune In, Turn Out In 2008

This story was written by Jamie Friedland, The Duke Chronicle
Back in January, Time dubbed 2008 "The Year of the Youth Vote." It appears it was correct.

Pollsters consider "youth voters" citizens between 18 and 29 years old. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement estimates that youth voter turnout was between 49 and 55 percent (votes are still being counted). In the three preceding presidential elections, youth voter turnout rose from 37 to 48 percent. In each of those elections, youth votes accounted for just 17 percent of ballots cast (overall turnout also rose). This year, the National Exit Poll projects our share of votes at 18 percent. This increase may seem small, but even a minor vote share increase in a year of strong overall turnout is significant.

Students comprise about a quarter of the youth vote. We will have to wait for more detailed statistics, but an examination of votes in counties with major universities suggests that students broke heavily Democratic this year. Youth voters chose Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain by a whopping 34 point margin (66 to 32), and many analysts believe that students were pivotal in electing Democrats up and down the ballot. Obama won the youth vote in 41 states with more than 80 percent support in some states.

Obama's campaign pursued the youth vote much more actively than McCain's. I knew this intuitively, but I wanted to see if I could quantify this assertion. Yes I can: There are 23 special "coalition" pages on McCain's Web site. Although bikers (leather, not spandex), racing fans and lawyers were important enough to get their own pages, students were not. Even Lebanese Americans got their own page. Now I have nothing against Lebanese Americans -- unlike McCain, I never implied that "Arab" could have negative connotations -- but the fact that McCain's Web site would court a decidedly minor demographic and not students is absurd. If ever there was a demographic to appeal to online But my quest for quantification continued.

A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word "students" returns just 317 hits, and some of the first hits aren't even about us: They clarify Gov. Sarah Palin's position on teaching creationism in schools (she's for it, but thankfully that doesn't matter anymore). Conversely, the same search on barackobama.com returns 931,000 hits.

Students for Barack Obama was largely responsible for this disparity. SFBO, the official student wing of the campaign, was almost entirely student-run. It had hundreds of chapters at schools in every state and tapped students to volunteer, canvass, phone-bank and register voters throughout the nation. Full disclosure: I started working for SFBO nearly a year and a half ago, but my own considerable bias aside, it is quite telling that our group had no visible counterpart in the McCain campaign. I was unable to find even a state-level organization on the Internet. The McCain campaign did support existing groups like College Republicans, but if they created any sort of new organization for student supporters, they certainly didn't intend for anyone to find it online, for my best search efforts found nothing.

Why didn't McCain vie for the student vote? The obvious explanation is that he was expending his resources elsewhere because students heavily favored Obama, but that has major implications. Sure, demographics have their trends, but do campaigns regularly leave such a large, important group unchallenged? Young voters are not just a subset of America, we're a cross-section of it. We come from every part of the nation, every socio-economic situation and we have as diverse a racial background as our country has to offer. And you know those future generations that will have to pay for today's mistakes? That's us. And our kids. Considering the number of recent mistakes, shoudn't our perspective matter?

In this election, it did. And what of the future? Regardless of how they vote, many young voters consider themselves independents. That sentiment typically dwindles in higher age brackets. It is conventional electoral wisdom that lifelong party identification forms some time in a voter's first few elections. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 55.4 percent of the youth vote, the highest percentage since the voting age dropped to 18. That election had formative, lasting effects on the youth voters who participated; their age cohort still trends more Republican than those immediately younger and older. Although we are not all predestined to become Democrats and could maintain our relative political independence, this certainly doesn't bode well for the Republican Party.

At least 22 million young people voted in this election. Although youth turnout increased, what is extraordinary is how lopsided our support was. Obama tied McCain among voters aged 45 to 64 and lost among voters 65 plus. CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, who studies the youth vote, says we are Obama's core constituency; he couldn't have won without us. We won't be youth voters forever, but our generation has definitively asserted itself on the political stage. Let's keep it up.
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