In her op-ed endorsing Obama in The New York Times, Caroline Kennedy wrote of his "special gift for inspiring young people to become engaged in the political process."
And the media has generally treated that as a given. The Washington Post on March 30 ran a column in which editorial page staffer Catherine Rampell claimed this year's youth turnout increase is entirely attributable to Obama, writing, "where Rock the Vote has gone wrong, Barack Obama has gone very, very right."
And Obama certainly has dominated the youth vote in the Democratic primaries, winning it in all but three states.
But in terms of boosting youth turnout this fall and, by extension, the Democratic Party's chances of taking the White House, it is unclear whether the Democratic nominee's identity would make a big difference.
The under-30 vote has been trending upward — and leaning Democratic — for years.
Voters younger than 30 accounted for 14 percent of the Democratic primary electorate through Super Tuesday and 11 percent of Republican voters.
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In 2000, the last time both parties had contested primaries, young people were 8 percent of both primary electorates, and they increased their turnout in the elections of 2004 and 2006 over 2000 and 2002, respectively.
So youth turnout is even up this year in Republican primaries where Obama does not appear on the ballot.
And the fact that young voters skew Democratic is nothing new. In 2004, they favored John F. Kerry by 9 points. In 2006, they supported Democrats over Republicans by 20 points in House races and by 27 points in Senate races.
"Whether or not Obama's in the race, the youth vote is going to go up, it looks like," said Karlo Barrios Marcelo, a researcher at the nonpartisan Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at the University of Maryland. "The question is: How large will the margin be?"
Marcelo noted that when Howard Dean dropped out in 2004, many people asked whether his dedicated young supporters would become disengaged, but they continued to vote in great numbers.
"Young people are enthusiastically supporting Democrats up and down the ballot, as they have been since 2004," said Alexandra Acker, executive director of the Young Democrats of America. "The young voter revolution didn't start with Obama's candidacy, and it won't end with his candidacy."
According to a strategist close to the Obama campaign, "[Youth turnout] would have been large regardless, but I think it's been over and above what anyone would have dreamed of." The strategist continued, "Part of that is people being excited by [Obama's] message."
The Clinton campaign, of course, disagrees. "The notion that young people, as engaged and enthusiastic as they are, would choose to sit on the sidelines in the general is absurd," Emily Hawkins, Clinton's national youth vote director, wrote in an e-mail. "It's an empty threat and serves to reinforce the stereotype that greater participation among young voters is a new development or is somehow not genuine or lasting."
To be sure, Obama does better than Clinton among young voters in general election matchups. According to Rock the Vote's February poll of 18-to-29-year-olds, John McCain trailed Clinton by 12 points (35 percent to 47 percent) and Obama by 30 points (27 percent to 57 percent). In the most recent Rasmussen poll, Obama beats McCain 48 percent to 37 percent among 18-to-29-year-olds, while Clinton edges McCain only 45 percent to 42 percent among people under 30.
And Obama's young supporters appear to be more involve. His campaign was so deluged with volunteers in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses that it had to start telling many supporters to go elsewhere.
Obama has also outraised Clinton among small donors, a category that young donors are likely to fall into. In February alone, Obama raised $30.5 million from donors who gave less than $200, compared with Clinton's $17.2 million.
Republicans say McCain can compete with either of the Democrats for the youth vote. "This fall will be an exciting time for youth voters in terms of turnout and participation," said Crystal Benton, a McCain campaign spokeswoman. "I think that Sen. McCain has a broad electoral appeal and has as good a shot as any candidate to win their support."
Jessica Colon, chairwoman of the Young Republicans' National Federation, suggested that Obama's popularity among youth might not transfer to Clinton if she is the nominee.
"I think the Democratic youth vote could be lower [if Obama is not the nominee]," she said, "but we'll see the same levels of Republican youth vote."