Young Voters Help Secure Obama Victory, Passage Of Progressive Ballot Measures

11/07/2012 05:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2012

NEW YORK -- Mitt Romney lost the youth vote by a huge margin, and with it, he lost the presidency.

Sixty percent of young voters who cast ballots chose to reelect President Barack Obama, against the 36 percent who voted for Mitt Romney. That's a six point slide in youth support for Obama from 2008, but still nearly triple the margin of victory for the youth vote that John Kerry won over George W. Bush in 2004.

An analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University found that had the youth vote been split 50-50 for the presidential race in just four states -- Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia -- Romney would have been elected president. In each of those four crucial swing states, exit polling shows young voters made up 16 to 19 percent of the electorate.

As the National Journal reported, Republicans counted on the youth vote to be held to just 15 or 16 percent of the electorate in order to secure a Romney victory.

Exit polls show voters ages 18 to 29 made up 19 percent of the electorate, a 1-point increase from 2008. CIRCLE estimates 22 to 23 million people between the ages of 18 and 29 nationwide voted this election.

"It is because [Romney] lost the youth vote pretty decisively that he will not be the next president of the United States," said CIRCLE's director, Peter Levine.

The 2012 election marks third presidential election in a row where roughly half of young voters cast a ballot -- well above the youth participation rate of only 37 percent in 1996. According to CIRCLE, 49.3 percent of young people who were eligible to vote participated this year, and Levine said once the final vote totals are in, the participation rate could climb to 51 percent.

That's encouraging for Levine, who admitted that before Tuesday he was ready to "sound the alarm" that the youth vote was likely to decline. So, too, was Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote.

"We were worried about national turnout numbers because the campaign was only run in a handful of states," Smith said. Yet some of the biggest college campuses in the country, including the University of Central Florida and Ohio State University, are in swing states.

"Young people are savvy," Smith said. "They are committed to this idea right now that participation is how they take back power. They feel their voice is being crushed by corporate and special interest money."

Tobin Van Ostern, deputy director of Campus Progress and the co-founder of Students for Barack Obama in 2008, said he was nervous about youth voter turnout this year due to new voter ID laws and word that students were waiting in line for two hours in swing states like Ohio and Iowa. But Van Ostern said young voters' impressive showing means elections are going to begin to reflect a millennial viewpoint.

"The fact of the matter is there are more of them every single year," Van Ostern said. "So as a share of the electorate, they're going to command a hefty and increasing share of the vote."

Beyond the presidential election, young voters made a significant impact on ballot measures in non-swing states.

In California, where young voters make up 23 percent of eligible voters, they represented 28 percent of the 2012 electorate -- a fact CIRCLE's Levine attributes in part to California's new online voter registration system. Youth turnout there helped pass Proposition 30, which will raise taxes on the wealthiest in the state in order to increase revenue for public education.

Young voters made up 20 percent of the electorate in Minnesota, where a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was shot down. They comprised 19 percent of all voters in Maryland, where the state passed a mini-DREAM Act and legalized same-sex marriage. The youth vote represented 22 percent of the electorate in Washington state, which legalized both same-sex marriage and marijuana. Colorado passed a pot legalization measure too, with 20 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29.

Same-sex marriage, legal marijuana and the DREAM Act typically poll better with young adults, so their turnout was critical for such measures' support. The converse was also true: In Montana, where young voters made up just 15 percent of the electorate, the state passed a measure denying tuition equality and other services to undocumented immigrants.

"Those are the views of this generation," Smith said. "They're going to make an impact both in who's elected and what issues are addressed."

Matthew Segal, co-founder and president of the millennial advocacy group Our Time, said Tuesday's election results affirm millenials' values -- and show the Republican party needs to modernize itself if it hopes to win over young voters.

"The millennial generation is the most diverse group in American history and believes deeply in social equality," Segal said. "When candidate and party platforms are built upon restricting access to equal rights whether it be marriage, fair pay, or an even-handed criminal justice system, they will lose."

Indeed, the voting bloc of 18 to 29-year-olds is more racially diverse than that of older Americans, and black and Latino voters also turned out strong in this election.

Van Ostern, of Campus Progress, said a diverse youth voting bloc will drive American politics for the next couple election cycles, if not longer, and candidates who ignore young voters do so "at their own peril."

Smith agreed, pointing out that Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly young, and will play a major role in shaping the electorate in the U.S. "This voting bloc can no longer be an after-thought to any candidate or campaign," she said.

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