An Associated Press headline the night of Nov. 2, 2004 stated unequivocally, “Youth Vote a Bust.” Despite the hype, the article said, young voters yet again failed to turn out to the polls. No surprise, huh? The AP didn’t get it right, though. Once the numbers were in, it turned out young voter turnout was up by 4.3 million votes over 2000 levels, the single largest increase in youth turnout since 18- to 20-year-olds won the right to vote in 1972. But the other story was so easy to tell. The notion that young people don’t vote is embedded in conventional political wisdom. Plus, Sen. John Kerry lost in 2004, and since the youth vote went for Kerry, that must mean they didn’t turn out.

Even this year, when young people have already turned out to the polls in record numbers, impacting the result of primaries and caucuses, the conventional wisdom remains: Young people are apathetic, they don’t vote, and they don’t make the difference in elections. The conventional wisdom is wrong. A look at myths versus facts demonstrates that young voters have been a powerful force in elections since 2004, and that this year they will continue to be so.


Myth #1
Every election year, reporters and organizations hype the youth vote as the next big thing, but come Election Day, young voters fail to materialize at the polls.

It’s true that the youth vote has gotten a significant amount of attention in recent elections—but for very good reason. In 2004, as noted above, 4.3 million more 18- to 29-yearolds voted than in 2000. And while 2004 was a high turnout election overall, young adults led the way. The turnout rate for those aged 18 to 29 surged from 40 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2004, an increase that was more than double that of the overall electorate (4 percent). Voters under 25 increased at an even higher rate of 11 percent, nearly three times as much as adults of all ages. Again in 2006, the youth vote surged. On Election Day, turnout of 18- to 29-year-olds increased by 1.9 million over 2002 levels. Turnout among the youngest voters grew by 3 percent over 2002, twice the turnout increase (1.7 percent) of older voters.

In 2008, youth turnout has continued to grow. In this year’s primaries and caucuses, 18- to 29-year-old turnout doubled, tripled and even quadrupled (depending on the state) compared to the most recent primaries. Turnout among young adults went up in nearly every single primary or caucus and overall increased by 103 percent compared to turnout in the 2000 and 2004 primary seasons. Not only did young adults’ numbers grow in the 2008 primaries, but they made up a larger portion of the votes cast than in previous primaries.

For example:

• In 2004, 17- to 29-year-olds made up 17 percent of Iowa
caucus-goers; in 2008, they were 22 percent.

• 18- to 29-year-olds were 14 percent of 2004 New Hampshire
primary voters; in 2008, they were 18 percent.

• In Georgia’s 2004 primary, 18- to 29-year-olds were 11
percent of the voters; in 2008, they were 17 percent.

What might happen this November? No prediction can be certain, but the momentum of surging turnout in three major elections in a row is almost certainly building toward historic youth turnout next month.


Myth #2
Even if turnout is going up, the youth vote’s impact on elections is still negligible.

The youth vote can make—and has made—the difference in close elections. Its sheer size, combined with growing rates of voter turnout, makes this a politically powerful voting bloc. In 2004, the size of the 18- to 29-year-old electorate (20.1 million voters) rivaled that of the much-coveted senior vote (22.3 million voters over 65). In 2008, there are 44 million 18 to 29-year-olds eligible to vote—that’s one-fifth of the voting eligible population. In a world where 537 votes can decide a presidential election (see Florida in 2000) and 83 votes can tip a congressional race (see Joe Courtney, below), any group that makes up one-fifth of the electorate can wield significant influence.

In 2006, young voters made the difference in races where campaigns ran youth outreach efforts. When campaigns and candidates go after the youth vote, it works.

For example:

• Montana: Jon Tester defeated Conrad Burns by 3,562 votes; 18–29 turnout was up by 39,106 votes over 2002.

• Virginia: Jim Webb defeated George Allen by 9,329 votes; 18–29 turnout was up by 110,453 votes over 2002.

• Missouri: Claire McCaskill defeated Jim Talent by 48,314 votes; 18–29 turnout was up by 108,269 votes.

• Joe Courtney won Connecticut’s 2nd U.S. District House seat by 83 votes; turnout at the University of Connecticut polling place was up nearly ten times that number. Are young voters alone going to decide the election? Of course not. Anyone who says any single slice of the electorate is going to decide a nationwide election alone is blowing smoke. Soccer Moms, NASCAR Dads, Reagan Democrats, Hispanics, seniors, name your demo. Elections are decided on dozens of factors, not by any one demographic subset.

But are young voters going to have a significant impact on the election? Definitely. Forty-four million voters, one-fifth of the electorate, turning out in bigger and bigger numbers every year, and underestimated by most—that’s the makings of a demographic ready to have a major impact on this year’s elections.


Myth #3
If young people vote in 2008, it will just be due to the charisma and youth of Sen. Obama.

Perhaps some have just discovered the power of youth voters this year, but it began to grow long before Obama came on the scene. Turnout among young adults began to rise in 2004 and continued in 2006. No one would argue that the youth vote increase in either of those years was due primarily to a charismatic candidate.

And the youth vote turnout multiplied many times over in virtually every primary and caucus in 2008, both Democratic and Republican. Young voter turnout was up in states that Obama won, like Iowa, and in states Sen. Hillary Clinton won, like New Hampshire. It went up in Gov. Mike Huckabee’s strongholds in the South, and in states Sen. John McCain won in the Northeast and West.

Unquestionably, the Obama campaign’s focus on young voters has helped to spur their activity. More than any other candidate, Obama has put time, energy and resources into registering and turning out young adults, and he won the primary race because of it. But the phenomenon of young voter turnout began long before the 2008 primaries and is much bigger than one campaign or one election cycle.

Several factors are behind the recent increase in young voter turnout. The outreach from candidates—including
Obama, Clinton, McCain and Huckabee in the 2008 primaries, and dozens of other candidates in recent years—is just one factor, albeit a major one. An increasingly civic minded generation, outreach from nonpartisan voter mobilization organizations, high-profile elections and new technologies empowering peer-to-peer and local organizing are the other major factors behind the surge in the youth vote. All will be in play in 2008, and all must be capitalized upon to bring the turnout of 18- to 29-year-olds to its full potential in November.


Myth #4
Young adults will never be a power in politics because even if more are voting, they will vote at rates lower than other adults.


Everything outlined so far shows that young adults can and likely will have a major impact on the elections in November. This cycle is the perfect storm for historic youth vote impact: the sheer size of this generation, momentum from 2004 and 2006, increased outreach from campaigns and nonpartisan organizations, and the likelihood of slim margins in the presidential and down-ticket races will all lead to a youth vote boom.

It is true that young adults vote at rates lower than other age groups. This should not be surprising. By definition young voters are new voters, and they’re just learning how to navigate the patchwork quilt that is the U.S. election system and its political games. An 18-year-old who has never registered nor voted before is less likely to cast a ballot than a 55-year-old who has been voting all her life. A 22-year-old away at college and moving yearly is less likely to cast a ballot than a 62-yearold who has lived in the same house and voted at the same precinct for the same party for 40 years.

Voting is a learned habit and it becomes a regular part of a person’s life over the years. It becomes easier and habitual to go to the polls every Election Day. It should not be surprising young adults vote at rates lower than middle-aged adults; it’s the inverse that would be disturbing. Work by youth vote organizations, colleges and universities, high schools, community organizations and outreach from campaigns—in addition to the encouragement of friends, family and co-workers—is the solution to helping new voters navigate our election system. And the increased activity of these organizations and institutions, and growing activity of person-to-person engagement, is a major reason for the recent youth vote boom. We’ll keep it up in 2008, and it will have a significant impact. But anyone who sets the bar by comparing new voters to seasoned voters is laying down an impossible gauntlet.

Besides, the percent of youth vote turnout isn’t an accurate measure of this bloc’s ultimate power at the polls. The real measure is a group’s ability to impact the final vote tally that matters and, as we’ve seen in this article, young voters’ potential impact is unmatched this year.

In all likelihood, the AP headline the night of the November 2008 elections will read “Young Voters Propel Senator ______to Presidency.” In all likelihood, young voters will show up to the polls in their highest numbers since 1972. In all likelihood, the increase in turnout of 18- to 29-year-olds in half a dozen statewide and dozens of local races will be the margin of victory for candidates across the country.

Will the press and political world get that? That depends on whether they look at the facts or fall victim to repeating the myths. All signs point to a banner year for the youth vote. Let’s hope that once the dust settles on Nov. 4, the facts prevail and today’s young adults get credit where credit’s due.
 
Kathleen Barr is director of research at Rock the Vote.