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The youth vote was, of course The Big Story of the 2008 election. But the ink wasn’t dry on the OBAMA WINS headlines when the handwringing began about 2010: would young voters show up again?
Voter turnout always declines in midterm elections, of course. The question of what’s going to happen with the 2008 young-voter crowd is an interesting one — and an important one too. But to understand why it’s important, it’s necessary to debunk a few myths.
MYTH 1: Voter turnout among 18-29 year olds was way up in 2008.
Actually, turnout among young voters rose just two percentage points between 2004 and 2008, going from 49% to 51%. It turns out that 2004 was a really big year for youth voting — from 2000 to 2004, the youth vote went through the roof, but from 2004 to 2008, it stayed pretty stable.
So why is 2008 seen as such a big year for youth voting? Three reasons. First, voter turnout overall actually declined from 2004 to 2008, so even that slight bump in turnout translated into a significantly larger share of the total pie. Second, young people swung sharply to the Democrats in 2008 — 66% of young voters chose Obama in 2008, compared with 54% who picked Kerry in 2004 and just 48% who went for Gore in 2000.
As for the third reason…
MYTH 2: Young voters only show up every four years.
The third reason that the youth vote was perceived as so big in November 2008 was that it actually was really big throughout the spring and summer. Youth participation in primaries and caucuses nearly doubled from 2000 (the last year that both parties had real battles for the nomination) to 2008. As a share of the total primary electorate, young voters jumped from 9% of the whole in 2004 to 13.7% in 2008 — a gain of more than fifty percent. The story of the 2008 youth surge was written long before November, and it demonstrates that under the right circumstances young voters can and will mobilize beyond presidential general elections.
MYTH 3: Youth voters are Obama voters.
Obama did very well among young voters in the 2008 general election, as we’ve seen, but the boost in turnout that year wasn’t purely an Obama phenomenon. Some forty percent of all young voters in the Democratic primaries supported another candidate, for instance. And as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, polling currently shows that youth support for the Democratic Party has been more stable since inauguration day than support for Obama himself.
So … yeah.
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the youth vote this November, and it could prove significant for long-term trends in the American electorate. It’ll also be interesting to see what happens with the spin on the youth vote, though I confess that I think that one is far easier to predict. (Some version of “Young Voters Stay Home” is a cinch to show up as a headline no matter what the turnout numbers say.)
It’s also going to be really interesting to see what happens next week with the DREAM Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If those two reforms pass into law, young liberals will likely wind up more energized for November than they otherwise would have been. If they fail, though, there may well be more of a price to be paid among young voters than among liberals as a group.