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The 49 Percent That Defeated Romney: Young Voters
Fellow young people, if you haven't already raised a glass -- and I imagine many of you have -- it's time to congratulate yourselves on a well-played election. It turns out you weren't so incompetent at navigating election bureaucracy. It turns out you weren't so apathetic. It turns out you actually turned out to vote.
Exit polls show that individuals ages 18 to 29 comprised 19 percent of voters in this year's electorate, a full percentage point higher than in 2008. The size of the youth vote over the years is influenced by fluctuations in the population of young voters. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 21 percent of this year's eligible voters were under 30, so the 19 percent figure seems a healthy one.
The more important number to study, though, is turnout. According to CIRCLE, at least 49.3 percent of Americans under 30 voted in this year's presidential election. That's higher than the turnout in 1996 (37 percent), 2000 (41 percent) or 2004 (48 percent). While the youth turnout figure has not yet reached -- and may never reach -- the 52 percent of 2008 (the third highest turnout since the voting age was lowered in 1972), it is expected to rise as more ballots are counted. At about this same point in the 2008 vote count, CIRCLE was estimating a turnout of only 48.3 percent.
According to CIRCLE, young voters decided this election:
Assuming that Florida is called for President Obama in 2012, then Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida will be states in which young voters were essential to the President’s reelection coalition. In those states, if Governor Romney had won half of the youth vote, or if young voters had stayed home entirely, then Romney would have won instead of Obama. Those states represent 80 electoral votes, sufficient to have made Romney the next president.
That said, young people did not vote for Obama by as large a margin as they did in 2008. Four years ago, Obama won 66 percent of the youth vote, with Senator John McCain capturing 32 percent. This year, exit polls show that the split was 60-37. But Obama's 23 percent margin still exceeds that of any other candidate in recent history.
In his Washington Post article "What the 2012 election taught us," Chris Cillizza suggests that one of the lessons of the race is that the youth vote cannot be dismissed: "Once is an anomaly. Twice is a new political reality. The only question going forward is whether the youth vote is tied to President Obama uniquely or whether it is an advantage for Democrats more broadly."
Was Obama's appeal to young voters rooted in personality or politics? He certainly lost some youth support as his rock-star status faded. But it seems the harsh experiences of young people unemployed or riddled with student debt did not keep them from the polls so much as introduce them to the stakes of politics. The exuberant youth of 2008 are the sober voters of 2012.
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)
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