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Tracking the Youth Vote

By Anne Clausen

Time Magazine called it “The Year of the Youth Vote,” and MSNBC was just one media outlet that attributed Barack Obama’s victory to young voter support. But the impact of the 18- to 29-year-olds on the 2008 election was far more complex than it originally appeared.

Had the voting age been 30 rather than 18, “Obama would have lost the election,” agreed Peter Levine, the director of Circle, a nonpartisan research center studying youth civic engagement. But he pointed out that the same would have been true if women or African Americans had been excluded from the polls.

The numbers show that in 2008, more young people between 18 and 29 decided to vote than in previous elections. Voter turnout for that age group was 51 percent, one of the highest recorded. It was surpassed only by young voter turnout in 1992, when Bill Clinton ran for president, and in 1972, when the voting age had just been lowered from 21 to 18 and the Vietnam War served as a mobilizing factor.

High turnout did not make all the difference

Still, young voter participation in 2008 paled in comparison to the turnout of people over 30 that came in at 62 percent. In many ways, that’s a natural phenomenon. Young people move around more and don’t always register to vote in time.

So the comparatively high turnout of the youth vote in 2008 was not nearly enough to turn the election for Obama, said Connie Flanagan, professor of youth civic development at Penn State University.

“In term of numbers, I don’t think they did – by themselves they didn’t,” she said. “Even with high turnout they could never swamp the vote of for instance the baby boomers.”

Christopher Muste, a political scientist at the University of Montana, argued that young voters had a bigger impact on the primary season than on the general election.

“They were a big part of his success in the early primaries. Iowa was a state he would definitely not have won without the youth vote,” he said.

That initial burst left people with the perception that Obama was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and he continued to benefit from that during the entire primary season, Muste said.

Impact differed from state to state

Young voters’ impact on the election differed from state to state, as did turnout. In Texas, Hawaii, Arkansas and Utah, less than 40 percent of people younger than 30 voted, whereas more than 60 percent participated in the caucuses and primaries of Iowa, Minnesota and New Hampshire.

Similar differences in turnout between one state and the next can be observed in all age groups, Muste said. They are typical for the American electoral system, where the winner takes all, no matter whether he won a state by one or 100,000 votes.

Presidential candidates spend little money or time campaigning in states they consider “lost causes.” People of one party have less incentive to care about the election in states that are heavily dominated and likely to be won by the opposite side.

“It is both that there is less effort on the part the party and the candidate in certain states – and that voters feel like their vote is not going to count that much,” Muste said.

Levine shared that opinion. “Being close in a race is motivating,” the researcher said, adding that certain states also have stronger traditions of civic engagement.

Image factor swayed public opinion

In the end, young voters’ influence on the election may have had more to do with the image their enthusiasm projected than with their actual votes.

“Public opinion of young people in politics was not very good before the election,” Flanagan said.

That changed when young people started quitting school for a semester to volunteer for Obama. It led to a “turnaround in public opinion on young people in politics,” she said.

“The idea that young voters were turned off by electoral politics was not so true in the 2008 election. There was a sense that voting might actually make a difference this time.”

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