Will the Youth Vote Swing This Election?
Karlo Barrios Marcelo
October 29, 2008
As most others inside the Beltway, I've spent most days, nay, most waking hours, and probably even some dream-filled ones, following each moment of this election. For me it began in earnest during the Iowa caucuses. My former home-state Sen. Barack Obama had pulled off what seemed like the unimaginable just a few months prior.
Obama won Iowa ( pdf) in the primary elections with the help of young voters, many of them new to the electoral process. In the Iowa Democratic Caucus, 47,000 young people braved the cold and participated--57 percent of these caucus-goers supported Sen. Obama, giving him a 40-point margin over his chief rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Obama didn't win any age group over 45 years old, so it was the young voters that helped establish this historic front-runner in what has become the most followed election in modern times.
Obama has ridden a steady-wave of youth support in almost every primary battle since Iowa. Overall, he snagged 60 percent (pdf) of all young voters in a year that witnessed a nine percentage point increase in youth turnout since 2000. Of the 38 primary battles for which CIRCLE (where I work as a research associate) has exit poll data, he won the majority of the youth vote in all but 7 states, and that includes Michigan. (pdf)
Young voters are not a monolithic bloc, and it is only recently that young people started choosing the Democratic Party and its candidates. In 2000, Gore won young people by only 2 percentage points over Bush, while Kerry expanded this margin to 9 percentage points in the 2004 contest. Nader won 5 percent of the youth vote in 2000 and less than one percent in 2004. In the 2006 midterm elections (pdf), young voters were more likely than any other age group to favor Democratic congressional candidates.
A recent Pew Research Center poll has Obama leading McCain by an astonishing 44 points. The enthusiasm gap among young voters is overwhelmingly in Obama's favor too. Forty-seven percent of Obama supporters are enthusiastic about his candidacy compared to only 11 percent for McCain.
McCain didn't fare well with young Republicans during the primary season; he didn't court young voters as strongly as other demographics. Of the young Republican voters, McCain garnered only 34 percent of the youth vote, a slight plurality over Huckabee (31 percent) and Romney (25 percent). Yet, McCain can't be too pleased with this statistic, because he was on the ballot in every Republican primary contest. Huckabee won Iowa in similar fashion as Obama--winning the 37 percent of the youth vote compared to only 8 percent for McCain.
Cracking the Code
The national polls are promising but presidential elections aren't determined by the popular vote (although they should be). The Electoral College makes presidential elections strategic. So, in what states will youth play a pivotal role?
CIRCLE just published quick facts on 16 battleground and large states. Currently, websites such as Pollster.com, fivethirtyeight.com, and others list the battleground states as: Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, New Mexico, Indiana, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia.
In analyzing and forecasting voter turn out in the battleground states, we should pay particular attention to certain swaths of young voters because they are either very large in terms of their share of the youth population or they have high voter turnout rates. In the below table, I've selected some indicators that provide some insight into how young voters might affect these battleground states.
College students and those with at least some college experience had two of the highest voter turnout rates in 2004 compared to other youth demographics. African-Americans are an important constituency in this election year because their turnout is expected to be record-breaking. Young people that live in urban areas are more likely to vote than those in suburban or rural areas, so I've included that demographic, too.
The share of Colorado's (pdf) youth population equals that of the nation. While youth turnout was up significantly in 2004, the turnout rate was only 50 percent--about average for the nation. Colorado's college students and those with at least some college experience will likely carry most of the voter turnout rate in 2008. The dearth of African-Americans makes it unlikely that a record-breaking turnout year for African-Americans will have much affect on Colorado.
Florida (pdf) has the lowest youth share of eligible voters (18%) among all the battleground states, but its youth favor Democrats heavily, as evidenced by the 17-point margin that young Floridians gave Kerry in 2004. The state's youth population is more African-American than the nation, which should help boost youth turnout and its impact. If the state goes blue, it will be due to the large margins that young voters will give Obama. The Clinton's presence in Florida and The Great Schlep are already cutting into McCain's margin.
Indiana (pdf) gave Bush a five-point margin in 2004. It's young voters are slightly less diverse, less educated, and more rural than other battleground states. These demographics don't bode well for Obama. While youth turnout increased 6 points, it was very low (41 percent) compared to the national average (49 percent). Of all the vote-friendly laws, Indiana only has one--early voting. The state does not allow for unrestricted absentee ballots or extended voting hours; nor does it mail sample ballots and polling location.
Nevada (pdf) is a mixed bag. Part of the battle is uphill because Nevada's youth have the lowest share of college students among the battle ground states. What's more, Nevada's youth have consistently voted at lower rates than the nation. Youth here choose Kerry over Bush by a 14-point margin, and Obama was popular among young voters in the 2008 caucus where young Democrats outnumbered young Republicans by 3 to 1.
Except for a few African-Americans, New Mexico's share of highly educated young voters and urbanites should bode well for good voter turnout. Yet, New Mexico's youth turnout rate is consistently below the national average despite a large increase in turnout from 2000 to 2004. Like Indiana, young New Mexicans preferred Bush over Kerry. Obama has a six-point lead, according to Pollster.com, but it's unclear which demographics are giving him the edge. He has campaigned numerous times in college towns, hoping to turn the largest share of college students among the battleground states into voters. Young Latinos are another demographic to watch: registered Latino voters nationwide prefer Obama over McCain by a 3 to 1 margin.
Young North Carolinians (pdf) delivered the state for Obama in the primary (74% chose Obama over Clinton), and they could do it again in the general election. The big statistic in North Carolina that jumps out is the 24 percent of young voters that are African-American, the highest share among battleground states. Also, the state boasts a good share of college students. The state's youth turnout rate isn't great--generally lower than the national average. The African-American turnout will correct for some of this prior performance, and so will some important Election laws. The state is already reporting high turnout for early voting, which will help lessen the stress on Election Day, for which the state provides extended voting hours.
Young voters have a chance to make a serious statement in Ohio. (pdf) Among the battleground states only Virginia is more representative of America than the Buckeye state. Bush won Ohio by two percentage points, despite the youth vote giving Kerry a 14-point margin. Coincidentally, this is almost the same margin that those ages 60 and older chose Bush over Kerry, an age group with nearly the same voter share as young voters. Ohio offers unrestricted absentee voting, early voting and extended hours on Election Day. Both African-American and college student turnout should be up from 2004, when young Ohioans had a strong showing in voter turnout--54 percent. Look for that number to go up.
Young Virginians (pdf) prefer Obama--76 percent of young primary voters chose him over Clinton --, so expect him to rack up a large margin among this demographic. The main concern here is turnout; Virginia was one of the few states to witness a decline in youth turnout from 2000 to 2004. That may not be the case this year since Obama sowed great seeds in the primary season and he'll be sure to reap its rewards.
Can you hear it? Change is coming. The young voters have been telling you about it since January.
Karlo Barrios Marcelo is a research associate at CIRCLE--a non-partisan research center that studies civic and political engagement among 15- to 25-year-olds in America. He is a frequent contributor to WireTap and serves on the advisory board of HeadCount.