If Barack Obama wins in November, it won’t be because young voters showed up for him in record numbers at the polls.
If Barack Obama wins in November, it won’t be because young voters showed up for him in record numbers at the polls. Judging from all the hype, you’d think that the Illinois senator is poised to surf into offi ce on a cresting tsunami of the youth vote. Labeled the “Year of the Youth Vote” by Time magazine, called “The Year the Youth Vote Arrives” by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, 2008 is supposedly when the wireless and digitized Millennial generation will register its power by selecting Obama as the next commander-in-chief. On the surface, a good case can be made that this really is young America’s breakout year. The Center for Information and Research Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, reports that electoral participation among 18- to 24- year-olds increased from 36 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2004. For the larger 18-to-29 age group, participation rose from 40 to 49 percent. Then came a turnout rate for under-30s in this year’s primary that has nearly doubled since 2000. In Virginia, 18- to-25-year-olds are signing up to vote at twice the rate of other voters. In Ohio, the number of 19- to 29-year-olds voting in the presidential primary swelled from about 260,000 in 2000 to more than 479,000 in 2008. In the previous general election, student turnout had been so heavy at Kenyon College that some students waited 12 hours to vote. The fact that they were willing to do so for John Kerry is a testament to the passion of many young Americans to repudiate the Bush legacy. Now, as The New York Times reported during the primaries, it is Obama who “has clearly struck a chord among younger voters.” Unlike the Sixties, youth voting is not a counter-establishment phenomenon. In fact, they are getting constant praise and encouragement—from MTV and Rock the Vote, from CIRCLE, as well as from Hollywood and rock stars. So are America’s youth truly going to remold American politics in 2008? Our only way to judge the likely future is to consult the recent past. Definitions of what constitutes the “youth vote” range from 18-to-24 to 18-to-30. Even by the most generous definitions, however, the history of American electoral politics suggests nothing but disappointment for this year’s youth vote boosters. Consider the history. One year after the 26th Amendment was ratified, young Americans came out in record numbers for George McGovern. Unleashed to vote and energized by the Vietnam War, the youth vote immediately set a record of 55 percent turnout. This did not, however, prevent McGovern from receiving a pitiful 17 electoral votes. Even at such an impressive level of turnout, young voters could not balm the sting of a resounding defeat inflicted by their older cohorts. And 1972 was a high-water mark. In 1996, only 40 percent of America’s youth turned out to vote. In the hotly contested 2000 election, only 42 percent turned out to vote. Recognize a pattern? Youth turnout can be somewhat impressive in a contested primary, yet it tends to disappoint in the general election. And even primary turnout is over-hyped. As CIRCLE reports, more than 6.5 million voters under 30 participated in the recent primaries and caucuses, a turnout rate for the youth vote that rose from 9 percent in the 2000 primaries to 17 percent of the youth vote in the 2008 primaries. But this is a misleading comparison. Consider that the Democratic primaries of 2000 lacked drama—and drew out only 33 million voters (and only 24 million in 2004). This year saw almost 59 million primary voters. So young voters, as a percent of the overall population of primary voters, were really only 11 percent of that 59 million—in a year in which the average national turnout rate was 28 percent. Rock the Vote trumpeted that the number of 18- to 29-year-olds voting in the primaries and caucuses this year was “103 percent more than in the previous set of primary elections.” What they failed to mention is that among all voters, participation was up a whopping 175 percent. Thus, even the rising number of youthful voters was more than matched by the increase in all age cohorts in an exciting, hotly contested primary season. “Every age group goes up in a year like this, not just youth,” says Richard Benedetto, professor of journalism and politics at American University. On Super Tuesday this year, when more than a dozen states voted, which state had the highest youth turnout? Was it New York, with young women turning out for Hillary? Was it Illinois, with its Obama aficionados? No, the highest youth turnout, as a share of the total vote, was in Utah. That’s right. They turned out in droves for … Mitt Romney. So we would be wrong to assume that all youthful enthusiasm is on the left. John McCain has deftly reached out to youth through Facebook and YouTube, and by logging the most appearances by any guest on Comedy Central. McCain’s maverick image gave him crossover appeal that allowed him to take the youth vote in Florida’s Republican primary. Most telling of all, age is a strong predictor of whether or not a person will vote. In the last three presidential elections, voters 18 to 20 were the least likely to show up at the polls, followed by the 21 to 24 age bracket. The most reliable voters are over 65. The dispiriting reality for youth vote enthusiasts was captured by Katharine Mieszkowski in Salon: “A tripling of young voters’ participation [in 2008] did not even bring them up to the same level of participation that the old fogies had back in 2000.” But what about the crowds? Surely the level of enthusiasm we’ve seen for Obama will provide the energy for the coming Youth-Tsunami? A Pew Research Center study shows that a larger percentage of young people than older voters find this election more interesting than past elections. “Defying stereotypes, the young are more engaged in this campaign than are their elders,” writes E.J. Dionne. There are three problems with this view. First, it is only the first or second presidential election in which those younger voters have been old enough to participate, so of course they’re likely to say they are more interested in politics “this year.” Second, voting machines do not register the intensity of a vote. The vote of a crusty octogenarian reluctantly casting a ballot for a moderate Republican will register with all the weight of an enthusiastic college student who believes Obama is “the one.” Finally, youth enthusiasm seems to have burnt bright and then died out. “No one reported it, but as the primaries went along, the youth vote got smaller and smaller,” Benedetto says. While the youth vote in Iowa was an impressive 22 percent, by the end of the primary season, it was down to 13-14 percent in South Dakota, Montana, Puerto Rico, Kentucky and North Carolina. When discussing the youth vote, we are almost exclusively talking about those with at least “some college.” Among young voters with no college experience, a mere 7 percent showed up in the primaries. Additionally, there are practical reasons why youth don’t show up in record numbers to cast a ballot. In early November, college exams begin to loom. Football season is in full gear. And there is always a boyfriend or girlfriend around to generate enthusiasm that no candidate can match. Complicating this picture is the fact that most college students are away from home. A student either has to be patient enough to go through the steps needed to vote absentee, or travel to vote. What about young graduates from college? When they aren’t backpacking around the world, young workers change addresses and jobs often, again complicating the mechanics of regular voting. Pollster John Zogby calls nonvoting a “life-cycle matter,” in which young voters are “more concerned with their careers, relationships, more personalized things” than with “the broader community.” While the main reason for nonvoting among seniors is illness or disability, more than 23 percent of youth could only cite being “too busy” and having “scheduling conflicts” as excuses for not voting. Read this as writing tonight a paper that is due tomorrow. Incredibly, 15.2 percent of nonvoting youth could not tell pollsters one good reason why they didn’t vote. This is a frustrating reality for Democrats, who hold the political equivalent of cold fusion, if only they could get it to trigger. Remember Motor Voter? Democrats do, and they’re trying every way they can to unleash youth’s power potential, such as pushing measures in California that would allow 16-year-olds to “pre-register,” and would permit 17-year olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 by the time of the general. The next push will surely be Internet voting. After all, for today’s youth, the web is an extension of their nervous systems. Democracy Corps reports that almost half of young people get most of their information about politics from the Internet. Fully two-thirds of young people maintain a profile on Facebook or MySpace. If some way could be found to allow secure Internet voting, the long-awaited Youth Tsunami would undoubtedly come true. The challenge for Republicans is not to oppose all good government arguments for maximum voter participation. The real problem is to ask why higher youth voting would be such a disaster for the GOP. Was Winston Churchill right? “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart,” he said. “If you’re not a conservative when you’re 40, you have no brain.” One thing is certain. The senior voters who have the power to rescue John McCain in this election will shuffle off this mortal coil. Will the baby boomers replace them with their voting intensity and Republican loyalty? Will the young voters who sit out this election in their dorms and apartments one day be the very bloc the GOP will need to survive? No one has a crystal ball that can look that far into the future. But the vision for the near term seems very clear. 2008 will once again be a year in which the anticipated youth vote did not materialize.Tom Edmonds is president of Edmonds Associates, a Republican media consulting firm. He is a past president of the American Association of Political Consultants.