If you're a reader of Newsweek, CBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The National Journal, you've probably read a lot about Barack Obama and his "hidden army" of "BarackStars," young voters who will supposedly propel the Senator to victory in the Iowa caucus; a narrative pushed by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe despite a distinct lack of hard evidence (read: polling) that young voters favor Obama over Clinton to any substantial degree. You've also probably read all about Howard Dean and how young voters displayed a similar enthusiasm for his campaign, but burned the governor at the ballot box when they failed to show up at the caucus. The conclusion: young voters don't turnout and Obama's strategy is historically risky.
There's only one problem with this analysis. It's all wrong.
A little bit of research reveals that young voter participation in the Iowa Caucus did in fact increase dramatically in 2004. According to an analysis of exit polling data by the Center for Independent Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the premier research shop for information on youth civic participation, young voter participation in the Iowa Caucus quadrupled in 2004. An estimated 21,000 18-29 year olds participated in the 2004 caucus, 17% of the total 122,000 caucus participants. (pdf) That number is strikingly close to 20%, young voters' share of the eligible electorate, and stands in stark contrast to the participation figures for Generation X. 30-44 year olds comprised just 15% of the participating electorate in the 2004 caucus, despite the fact that Gen X makes up 31% of the Iowa population.
And what about the fact that all those voters were supposed to choose Dean? While the Governor from Vermont may have had a lot of youth energy, it turned out that most of his youth support was located outside of Iowa. Young Iowans split their votes among Dean, Senator John Edwards, and Senator John Kerry, who, as this chart from CNN exit polling illustrates, received a plurality among 18-29 year olds, capturing 35% of their vote.
A more accurate narrative of the 2004 Iowa caucus might read: Iowa youth vote surges, picks Kerry; Gen X continues to disappoint at the polls.
So what does this mean for the Obama campaign? David Plouffe is likely right in his assertion that the media is underreporting the potential youth turnout. David Yepsen of the DeMoines Register is leading that charge , most recently with a report that the under 25 vote only represents 2% of "likely caucus goers." That figure isn't all that surprising since, in order to be a likely caucus goer, one would need to have already participated in a caucus - an impossible feat for those between the ages of 17 and 21. As Mystery Pollster notes, there are also a number of other methodological problems with this 2% number. When it gets down to it, no one really knows how many young voters will participate in the 2008 Iowa caucus, but if trends from the last three years are any indication, it will likely be in numbers equal to or greater than those from 2004.
This does not necessarily mean that young voters will lead Obama's campaign to victory, and it doesn't even mean that they will choose Obama over other candidates. The Obama campaign certainly seems to have the energy on the ground, and unlike Dean, that energy is coming from native Iowans, not out of state transplants. Nevertheless, polling still puts Hillary well within striking distance (despite David Plouffe's claims to the contrary), and a split youth vote is highly probable. What it does mean is that young voters are a highly engaged portion of the electorate - more engaged than those Generation Xers who are now in their 30s and 40s - and their votes are not necessarily tied to any one candidate. When the caucus ends and delegates are assigned, let's hope that this time the media can get the story right.