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Youth Vote Played Key Role In Election

This story was written by Ryan Brown, The Duke Chronicle


It all started with a text message.

When it came time for President-elect Barack Obama to announce Sen. Joe Biden as his vice-presidential nominee in August, he could have called a press conference or held a rally. Instead, with a quick text to 2.9 million of his closest friends, he tapped into a new technology-and with it, a new generation.

"When he did things like that, Obama really spoke to young people," said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, lead researcher at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

And when he spoke, they answered. Twenty-three million Americans under the age of 30 cast ballots in this election, up 3.4 million votes from 2004, according to estimates compiled by CIRCLE.

CIRCLE also reported that turnout among young voters hit its highest point since 1972, when 55.4 percent of eligible young voters participated in the first election in which 18-year-olds had the right to vote.

And in North Carolina, a state that Obama carried by less than 14,000 votes, the unprecedented participation of young voters may have been the factor that took the president-elect over the top.

"If it weren't for the high turnout of young people and their overwhelming support for Obama, [North Carolina] would have been a red state," Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Across the country, voters under 30 favored Obama by a margin of 2-to-1, but in North Carolina, the scales were even more unbalanced. According to CNN exit polling data, about 74 percent of young N.C. voters cast ballots for the Illinois senator. It was the only age group in the state that gave Obama a majority, CNN reported.

Broken down by race, the same exit polls indicated that white North Carolina voters under 30 fell into the Obama column by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, while African-American voters in the same group cast 100 percent of their ballots for Obama. No data was available for young voters of other races.

Nationally, the spike in young voters amounted to an 11 percent rise since 2000, according to CIRCLE data. Kawashima-Ginsberg said while that level of increase may not appear particularly significant, it is an anomaly in a race where she estimates overall participation rose only about 1 percent.

"In the past I think politicians have really overlooked young voters," said Faulkner Fox, a lecturing fellow in the English department and one of the organizers of the grassroots political group Durham for Obama. "There's a stereotype that they're self-obsessed and disinterested, but Barack Obama trusted young people and believed that if they felt the need for change they were going to vote and be active."

On Duke University's campus, evidence of just that kind of activity built steadily in the months and weeks leading up to the election. Canvassers netted nearly 2,000 new registrations among students beginning when they returned to campus in August, and a steady stream of political notables-from Governor-elect Bev Perdue to Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr-passed through the Gothic Wonderland to rally Duke students as Election Day neared. Nearly 10,000 people cast ballots at the early voting site on campus, according to the Durham County Government Web site.

For many students, it was Obama's relative youth and message of political change that gave him their vote.

"The message of '08 was profoundly different than '04 and it was a message we haven't seen in decades in the United States," said sophomore Ben Bergmann, president of Duke Democrats. "It was not only that Barack Obama was a better candidate than [Republican Sen.] John McCain for young voters, but he was actually calling on us to transform ournation."

Not all young voters, however, were Obama supporters. According to polling data collected by The Chronicle, approximately one in five Duke students voted for McCain, and conservative students turned out to organize for their candidate as well.

"There was more youth participation in this election with both parties, not just for Obama," said sophomore Joanna Bromley, vice-chair of Duke College Republicans. "Democrats definitely had a big presence on campus, but it also does help that they're most of the student body."

Although there is momentum right now for young people to be civically engaged, it will die out if the country does not find a way to take advantage of it, Kawashima-Ginsberg, said.

But Fox remains optimistic.

"We've activated a whole new generation of activists," she said. "There's a legacy to this campaign that we can only just begin to understand right now."

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