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Why the Youth Vote Is the Big Story -- For 2008 and for Decades to Come


In the wake of Barack Obama's impressive electoral triumph, pundits, policy advocates, and analysts of every stripe are debating the causes of the victory and its lessons for future campaigns and for both major parties. In particular, members of various Democratic constituency groups are arguing over who should get the credit for delivering the "decisive" votes that put Obama over the top. Practically every slice of the November 4th coalition has claimed the honor -- labor unions, women, Hispanics, African-Americans, Jews, young people. Is one of them right? And does it really matter?

In some ways, it's a pointless debate. In practically any election that is not an out-and-out blowout -- and Obama's six-percent popular vote win, while decisive, doesn't quite reach the blowout category -- it's possible to make a convincing case for almost any significant voter bloc as being a "decisive" one. After all, it takes the whole coalition to produce the winning margin, and the loss of any one segment, even if not fatal, would make the race uncomfortably close and perhaps vulnerable to loss via electoral shenanigans or lawyered-up recounts.

What's more, in the specific case of Obama, as some astute observers have noted, the victorious campaign was unusual in that it did not center its appeal on promises to any one demographic or interest group, or even a small collection of such groups. Obama's campaign was not particularly identified with (for example) the interests of retirees, teachers' unions, immigrants, small business owners, supporters of Israel, abortion-rights advocates, evangelical Christians, or even Black Americans--despite the face that it obviously drew support from all of these groups and more besides.

Obama deliberately ran on a platform that emphasized national unity and the greater good, thereby breaking with the recent Democratic tendency -- and weakness -- of seeming to represent merely a collection of "special interests" rather than a national cause. Not only was this strategy especially appealing to many voters, it also left president-elect Obama in the unusually strong position of not being visibly beholden to any one set of voters and therefore being relatively free to shape policy with the national interest in mind.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to conclude that it makes no difference which group or groups played crucial roles in the Obama victory -- particularly for progressives who want to build a long-lasting movement on the foundations laid in 2008. Understanding what made this win possible is essential for charting a path toward similar victories in elections to come, as well as for understanding the nature of the mandate Obama received and on which he needs to govern.

Not surprisingly, as the authors of Generation We, a new study of the so-called Millennial generation and their growing impact on American society, culture, and politics, we'd like to state the case for the youth vote as being particularly crucial in understanding the Obama victory and what it means for the future. In our view, there are several key factors that underscore the special significance of the under-30 voter in 2008.

First, the sheer numbers are impressive. According to CIRCLE, the leading monitor of youth voting trends in the United States, around 23 million people under 30 voted on November 4, an increase of around 3.4 million as compared with 2004. At least 52 percent of eligible voters under 30 participated in the election, another sharp increase from 2004 (when just 45 percent of young people turned out at the polls).

It's true that the total share of the electorate represented by youth did not increase massively. Based on exit polling data, young voters represented 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, up from 17 percent in 2004 -- an impressive feat in a year of surging voter turnout across the board, but not enough in itself to produce a decisive impact on the outcome. But combine this (modest) increase in share of the electorate with the overwhelming support of young voters for the progressive candidacy of Obama, and you begin to get a sense of the crucial importance of this demographic.

Fully two-thirds (66 percent) of young voters favored Obama, as compared with the 54 percent majority carried by John Kerry four years earlier. Out of 23 million votes cast, this produced a seven million vote plurality for Obama (based on a 15 million/8 million Obama/McCain split). That's virtually the same as Obama's margin of victory among the electorate as a whole.

Or consider what would have happened if Obama's support among young voters -- and the voting participation of that same group -- had merely matched the trends of 2004. According to calculations by the College Democrats of America, if young people had represented just 17 percent of the electorate and had broken for the Democrat by 54/46 (as they did in 2004), it would have cost Obama 2.7 percent of his victory margin. The result: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Indiana would have flipped from blue to red, and Missouri (currently too close to call) would have remained Republican as well. Obama would have lost 73 electoral votes--not enough to swing the election to McCain, but enough to make the victory dicey and to squelch all talk of any national mandate.

So based on the numbers alone, the youth vote deserves a lot of respect as a crucial factor -- if not the factor -- in shaping the 2008 electoral map. But there are other points to consider as well.

Most political campaigns depend on young people for much of their volunteer base and their energy. The Obama campaign was no different in this regard, although by all accounts the numbers of young people who turned out for Obama and their intense commitment to his cause were both extraordinary. It seems doubtful that the impressive success of the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, which had so much impact in such swing states as Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, would have been possible without Obama's army of Millennials.

More significant than the people-hours logged by young volunteers, however, is the fact that the Obama campaign was the first nationally successful political campaign built on a new-technology platform. (Howard Dean's 2004 campaign was the most prominent precursor, but of course that effort fell short of electoral success.) As everyone knows, Obama raised unprecedented sums of money using the Internet. He and his millions of volunteers also used online technologies to orchestrate thousands of local fund-raising events, canvassing efforts, and one-vote-at-a-time recruitment efforts.

The statistics are staggering: Obama enlisted eight million volunteers using social-networking sites, he attracted two million "friends" on Facebook, and he drew 90 million viewers to his video presentations on YouTube. (McCain mounted me-too efforts in all these areas, but his results were dwarfed by Obama's.) And on election day, the Obama team used text messages sent to millions of supporters to complement traditional GOTV activities--at an estimated cost of $1.56 per vote garnered, as compared with the $32 spent to produce the same vote via printed leaflets.

The point is that the Obama campaign didn't merely use young volunteers, as most campaigns do. It also created a campaign infrastructure specifically designed by and for today's tech-happy Millennial generation, using the communication tools young people rely on and trust.

The Obama candidacy was a campaign of, by, and for the young, from the millions of college students who were its local face to the candidate himself, the very image of a wired young urban professional. Progressives hoping to tap the energies of the young in future elections will be required to use the same techniques (and to develop new ones as technologies evolve). Obama showed us how.

Finally, the youth vote of 2008 deserves special scrutiny because of its likely significance for America's political future. Popular wisdom suggests that young people start out liberal and gradually become conservative as they age. Research shows that this assumption is false. Although people's political views and choices do evolve over time, study after study has demonstrated that the values and allegiances developed by the young remain remarkably consistent throughout a lifetime.

Young Democrats tend to stay Democrats; young Republicans remain Republicans. That's why (to over-simplify slightly) it's not unusual to see major electoral shifts occurring at roughly generational intervals -- the Democrats ascendant from the 1930s through the 70s, the Republicans from the 80s until today. And that means that the current shift of young Americans toward the progressive camp is profoundly important, likely presaging three decades or more of potential political dominance for progressive views and policies.

The support enjoyed by Obama among women, Blacks, Hispanics, and other demographic groups played a meaningful role in his 2008 victory. But none of these necessarily carries any long-term implications for the future; the popularity of either party among these groups can be expected to rise and fall from one election to the next as issues and candidates wax and wane.

By contrast, the emergence of a generational cadre of progressive voters could produce a massive, long-term reshaping of the American electoral landscape, provided that left-leaning politicians and organizers recognize the opportunity and act swiftly and smartly to take advantage of it. And that's why, when historians look back from the middle of the twenty-first century, the youth vote for Obama is likely to be seen as the story of the 2008 election.