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Young voters not essential to Obama triumph

Even without the support of voters under 30, Barack Obama would still have won the 270 electoral votes he needed to become the next president, an analysis of the figures show.
Image: Obama supporters
Supporters of Barack Obama react as they watch election projections Tuesday night in Grant Park, Chicago.Alex Brandon / AP file
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NEW YORK — If as the saying goes, “victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” among the “fathers” claiming credit for Barack Obama’s triumph are different demographic groups and Democratic constituencies.

It was union members who helped make Obama president, says the AFL-CIO. It was young voters who lifted him to victory. Latinos were crucial. Single women were decisive.

But wait a minute — would Obama have won anyway without, for instance, younger voters?

AnaMaria Arumi, who directs the exit poll desk for NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, has done the calculations based on the exit poll data and here is what she found: On a state-by-state level, when she re-ran the numbers as if there were no voters under 30, the only states that would switch to Republican presidential candidate John McCain are Indiana and North Carolina.

Without younger voters, Obama would still have won the 270 electoral votes he needs to become the next president.

What if there were no Latino voters?
In a counter-factual world in which there were no Latino voters, both New Mexico and Indiana would have switched into the McCain column. But Obama would have still won the electoral vote.

However, Arumi said, in the make-believe world where no African-Americans voted, while Obama still would have won most of the states that he won, McCain would have been able to take the hotly contested states of Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

The 107 electoral votes from those states would have been enough to shift the map in McCain’s favor.

It matters that Arumi did her calculations on a state-by-state basis — because it is the electoral votes of individual states and the District of Columbia and not the national popular vote that makes a candidate president.

Nationally, Obama's widest margin was among voters under 30. He won two-thirds of such voters, according to exit poll interviews.

Young voters in Virginia vs. Oklahoma
A close examination of a specific battleground state such as Virginia shows that 60 percent of Virginia voters under the age of 30 said they cast their ballots for Obama.

But for a contrast, take a state where McCain did very well, such as Oklahoma. In the Sooner State, just as in Virginia, about one-fifth of the voters were under age 30. And McCain won 60 percent of them. Not surprisingly McCain carried Oklahoma by a big margin, 32 percentage points.

So just as important as the differences between younger and older voters was simply where the voter lived: young people in Oklahoma tended to vote for McCain; young people in Virginia did not.

The problem for McCain is that there simply weren’t enough young voters in other states who were like the young voters in Oklahoma.

And younger voters in a heavily Democratic state such as California were not decisive in the outcome, just as their older aunts and uncles in California were not either.

That is because Democratic presidential candidates win California by such huge margins that the outcome there was never in doubt. Strategists knew at the outset that they could move California’s 55 electoral votes to the Democratic column.

What do we really know about the votes?
It’s important to note that the discussion about the relative importance of one demographic group or another is based on exit poll interviews with voters.

No election official knows for certain how many people in Virginia under age 30 voted — or for whom they voted. Ballots are not marked by the voter's age or any other distinguishing factor.

Likewise no one really knows for certain how many black voters in Virginia voted for McCain and how many for Obama.

And there are almost no voting precincts in the United States where 100 percent of the voters are young or black or Jewish or gun owners or members of any other single group.

Traditional voting analyses examined voting precincts that were dominated by one ethnic or religious group: voters in a predominantly Jewish precinct in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in the 1940 election, for instance.

More recently political scientists have examined exit poll data — samples of the electorate in a state or the entire country.

Of course, we still can look at a predominantly Latino or black congressional districts or counties. Census data can help us assess how black or Latino voters cast their ballots.

In Allendale County, South Carolina, for instance, Obama won 75 percent of the vote, making that his best county in a state he lost. That’s an actual vote count, not exit poll data.

According to the Census, 71 percent of Allendale County’s population is black. We can infer that most African-American voters in the county voted for Obama, but we still don’t know for certain how white and blacks voted in the county.

Nationally, the exit poll interviews indicated that:

  • 61 percent of Obama's votes came from white voters; 90 percent of McCain's came from white voters.
  • 23 percent of Obama's votes came from black voters; only one percent of McCain's came from African American voters.
  • Latino voters accounted for 11 percent of Obama's vote and six percent of McCain's.
  • Twenty-three percent of the Obama voters were under age 30 but only 13 percent of McCain backers were.

Surge of young voters?
NBC's Arumi said that while more people voted this time around than in 2004, that one age group did not turn out at a much higher rate than others did.

The purported “surge” of younger voters did happen, but it occurred at the same time as the number of voters of other ages also increased.

“Basically, the age distribution of voters looks the same as it did in 2004,” Arumi said.

In 2004, 9 percent of the electorate was aged 18-24; on Tuesday, the percentage grew by one point to 10 percent.

This single percentage point is pulled from the 40-49-year-old bracket.

The over-65 crowd remained the same: an estimated 16 percent of the electorate.

But what did shift is the vote preference of each group. Obama outperformed 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry with all age groups except seniors. His biggest gains were among those 25-29 years old.