Early reports are indicating that the youngest members of the country's electorate voted Tuesday in higher numbers than in the last presidential election — and they voted more Democratic. Youth turnout appears to be exceeding 2004 levels, which was itself a year with a big surge in voters ages 18 to 29.
“We expected record turnout, and that is what we’re seeing right now,” says Heather Smith, a spokeswoman for Rock the Vote, an organization that works to encourage young people to register and vote in every election.
What’s more, young voters may prove to have been the key to Barack Obama's victory. Young voters preferred Obama over John McCain by 68 percent to 30 percent — the highest share of the youth vote obtained by any candidate since exit polls began reporting results by age in 1976, according to CIRCLE, a non-partisan organization that promotes research on the political engagement of Americans between ages 15 and 25.
“It’s actually extraordinary,” says Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE. Traditionally, young people tend to support the same candidate, by roughly the same percentage, as voters older than 30, although they might be “just a tick or two more Democratic,” he says. “But because they are so apparently tilted in one direction, turnout becomes the issue.”
Political analysts have long been forecasting a high number of young voters in this presidential election — but there’s always that niggling fear that young people will do what young people are known for: flaking out, slacking off and failing to show up when it counts.
But this time, young people turned out to vote in droves. An estimated 22 to 24 million young people voted in this election, an increase in youth turnout by at least 2.2 million over 2004, according to CIRCLE.
“(The youth vote) is turning states that (Obama) would’ve lost or barely won into more comfortable margins,” says John Della Volpe, the director of polling for the Harvard University Institute of Politics. “Not only are they voting in higher numbers, they’re voting more Democratic.”
In youth-dense precincts around universities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Nevada — where at least 75 percent of voters are under age 30 — more votes had already been cast at 5 p.m. EST than in the 2004 election, reports Rock the Vote.
Other exit polls are reporting that one in 10 voters said they were voting this year for the first time, and six in 10 of those voters were under age 30. Overall, about one in seven voters were younger than 30, representing 18 percent of the voters in today’s election — a one-percent increase from the last three elections.
“Consistently throughout the country in key swing states, Obama is outperforming John Kerry’s performance (with young voters) from four years ago by two to three times the margin,” Della Volpe says, noting that on Tuesday night in Indiana, Obama was losing to McCain in every important demographic — except young voters. “In many states, the only significant electorate that Obama is winning is young people.”
Some young voters, like 29-year-old Sarah Crisman in Dallas, have been passionately involved during this long election season. Crisman has been volunteering for the Obama campaign since February 2007 — and said she was so amped up Monday night about Election Day, she hardly slept. She voted for John Kerry in 2004, but says, “I wasn’t near as excited about Kerry as I am today.”
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In 2004, 20.1 million 18- to 29-year-olds voted — a 4.3 million increase from 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The turnout increase among younger voters was more than double that of the overall electorate. And in this year’s primary elections, at least 50 percent more young people voted than they did in the 2004 primary in every state except New York, which stayed flat. In some states, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds doubled or tripled.
For 24-year-old Jade Baranksi, Tuesday was the second time she’s voted in a presidential election — but it’s the first time she’s cared enough about a presidential race to donate her own money. Baranski, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., gave $200 to the Obama campaign two weeks ago.
“Compared to what some people donated, it's nothing, but for me it was definitely a sacrifice,” Baranski said. “I honestly feel this election could come down to one vote, one person, one dollar — so hopefully all the the money and time I’ve put in will be worth it.”
Della Volpe says that even months before Election Day, young voters had already made a difference for Obama. Obama owes his victory in the Iowa primary to young voters, he says. “Without that majority in the youth vote community, he wouldn't have won Iowa. That increase in turnout and the significant margin that he had over Hillary really kind of set his campaign in motion.”
In 2004, John Kerry won the youth vote by 9 points, says Della Volpe. “Obama's going to probably triple that margin,” he predicts.
Through a steady stream of texts and Twitters, experts agree Obama has managed to excite young voters by meeting them where they live — online.
“This is a group of people who are constantly checking in with everybody else in their circle to make a decision,” says Morley Winograd, the co-author of “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics” and a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore. He defines Millennials as ages 18 to 26.
“This is a generation that doesn't tend to think about asking experts for opinion," Winograd says. "They tend to ask each other, and then that becomes the truth.”
Winograd says that means no decision is made without dozens of e-mails, texts or Facebook messages to check whether an idea works for the whole group — anything from “Where should we hang out tonight?” to “Who should we vote for?” — which could explain why Millennials so firmly latched onto Obama’s message of unity, he says. Video: Young voters: It's our turn now
“They are naturally inclined to be unified,” explains Michael D. Hais, who co-wrote “Millennial Makeover” with Winograd. “It’s the way they were reared; they were reared to believe that everyone has a role to play, everybody is the same and everybody should look for group-oriented solutions.”
The 'Barney' generation
Hais and Winograd share a unique opinion on why this group of young people seem to be so bent on group unity: We're now seeing the first votes cast by the "Barney" generation. Countless afternoons during their childhood, millions of Millennials sat down to watch a big purple dinosaur teach problem-solving to a diverse cast. “They all solved their problems by the end of the half hour, and they all accept one another,” Hais says.
Partly because of that "I love you, you love me" mindset, Hais believes that being a young Republican might not be as lonely of an existence as it sounds. Early exit polling data from CIRCLE shows that 30 percent of young voters prefer McCain, but “the way this generation operates, even though the majority of them are Democrats, Millennials, because they are much more collegial, I think will figure out a way to incorporate everybody's point of view,” Hais says.
As a Republican young woman in New York City, 27-year-old Lynn Krogh knows she’s outnumbered. But in the last several months, it hasn't felt that way. Krogh, the president of the New York Young Republicans, says her organization has seen its members surge in just the last couple weeks, with 75 more young voters joining in the last days before the election.
“I think that because the younger Republicans might be outnumbered some, that there hasn't been as much attention paid to them,” Krogh says. “But there really is just as much enthusiasm and excitement every day.”
But CIRCLE director Levine says that on either side of the party line, “all the signs point to a tremendous year for young people."
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