Survey: Youth vote nearly doubled for 2008 primaries and caucuses

Observers are always skeptical about turnout by young voters, but it appears to be way up this year. Will it matter?

Published June 17, 2008 8:08PM (EDT)

In January, Time dubbed 2008 "The Year of the Youth Vote" and other media outlets followed suit with stories gushing about a newly engaged "millennial" electorate. Generation Y was more civically active than the cynical slackers of my Generation X. Or so the story line went.

Now, as the Washington Post points out, a new survey shows this is one election story line that the media didn't flub -- at least not so far. More than 6.5 million voters under the age of 30 cast ballots in the presidential primaries and caucuses in 2008, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The youth turnout rate nearly doubled from 9 percent in the 2000 primaries to 17 percent in the 2008 primaries, the last comparable election cycle. It should be noted that CIRCLE researchers did not include youth turnout tallies for the 2004 primaries. (One of the researchers said those numbers weren't comparable to 2000 and 2008 because George W. Bush was a sitting president and faced little competition in the Republican primaries. Since there wasn't much of a contest, few youth voters cast ballots in the race, likely depressing youth turnout overall.)

CIRCLE also found that youth voting has increased over the last three election cycles (2004 presidential, 2006 congressional and 2008 presidential primaries), the first time that has happened since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971. This may indicate that the trend is generational, rather than just a blip.

CIRCLE found that Barack Obama captured 60 percent of the youth vote during the Democratic nominating contests. On the Republican side, the youth vote was more evenly spread among John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who garnered 34, 31 and 25 percent, respectively.

So will the youth vote sweep Obama into office? As Katharine Mieszkowski wrote in Salon earlier this year, there are reasons to be skeptical. Despite increases in turnout, youth voters still don't cast ballots as often as their elders do. Mieszkowski pointed to the recent Florida primary, where voters under 30 tripled their participation over the 2000 primary, which only increased their turnout from 4 to 13 percent.

"At the same time, participation of those age 30 and up increased from 14 to 33 percent," Mieszkowski wrote. "Translation: A tripling of young voters' participation did not even bring them up to same level of participation that the old fogies had back in 2000."

Paul Maslin put an even finer point on it in another article for Salon last month. Voters under 30 made up a microscopic 0.03 percent of Al Gore's votes in 2000 and 1.53 percent of John Kerry's in 2004. However, Maslin says the youth vote may still play a pivotal role in 2008. Increases in youth voting in swing states with large youth populations, such as Nevada, Virginia and Colorado, could be just enough to tip the states into Obama's column. Whatever happens, it may be time to retire that old cliche´ that young people never vote.

Update: As some readers pointed out, I incorrectly represented some of the numbers from Paul Maslin's story. Maslin writes, "18- to-29-year-olds supplied a minuscule portion -- only about .03 of a percent -- of Gore's ultimate popular-vote margin in 2000." Voters under 30 didn't supply .03 percent of Gore's popular vote, as I wrote, but .03 percent of the difference between Gore's popular vote total and George W. Bush's.

By Justin Jouvenal

Justin Jouvenal is an editorial fellow at Salon and a graduate student in journalism at New York University.

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