Election 2008: Second-largest youth voter turnout in American history

Claire Morgenstern Nov 10, 2008

Several hundred Carnegie Mellon students gathered in Rangos Ballroom on Tuesday night to watch election night coverage and weather the final hours before Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president of the United States. But the election of 2008 was historic for another reason.

Several hundred Carnegie Mellon students gathered in Rangos Ballroom on Tuesday night to watch election night coverage and weather the final hours before Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president of the United States. But the election of 2008 was historic for another reason — students who cast a vote in Tuesday’s presidential election (or mailed in an absentee ballot) were part of the largest ever group in their age bracket to support a single candidate, and the second largest youth voter movement in American history.

Between 22 and 24 million young Americans ages 18–29 voted, resulting in an estimated youth voter turnout (the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast a vote) of between 49.3 and 54.5 percent, according to an exit poll analysis released Nov. 4 by CIRCLE, a nonpartisan research center at Tufts University. This is an increase of 1 to 6 percentage points over the estimated youth turnout in 2004, and an increase of between 8 and 13 percentage points over the turnout in the 2000 election. The all-time highest youth turnout was 55.4 percent in 1972, the first year that 18-year-olds could vote in a presidential election.

Sixty-six percent of young voters cast their ballot for Barack Obama, the largest-ever showing for a presidential candidate in this age group. Young people preferred Obama to John McCain by a two-to-one ratio, according to a survey of young voters conducted by Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan initiative dedicated to youth voters, and Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research, a market research company, and released Nov. 6.

“Young people absolutely made the difference in this election,” said Erika Johansson, a project coordinator for Declare Yourself. “Without them, he would have lost the election.”

Obama won the age group of 18- to 29-year-olds, in addition to the 30–44 and 45–59 brackets.

Voting increased in comparison to the last election by particularly large margins in precincts on college campuses, such as Indiana University–Bloomington (287 percent), University of Maryland (122 percent), Ohio State University (92 percent), University of South Florida (66 percent), Colorado University–Boulder (45 percent), University of Connecticut (40 percent), and Iowa State University (39 percent), according to a survey on these campuses by the Student Public Research Interest Groups’ New Voters Project. Similar data for Carnegie Mellon or other universities in the state of Pennsylvania is not yet available.

Johansson pointed to a number of factors that may have led to the increase in young voter turnout.

Many youth were dissatisfied with the current administration, she said, and caught onto the idea of change. In addition, young people gravitated toward common issues, such as the economy and climate change, that made it easy to come together.

“Passion about the campaign was a determining factor for mobilizing people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about politics,” Johansson said. “The grassroots organization that the Obama campaign generated really played a huge part in allowing students to take it upon themselves to mobilize.”

Johansson also cited the early voting campaign, which allowed people from different precincts to go vote together, as an additional factor contributing to the high turnout, as well as the last-minute switch of students registered in their home states to registering in the states in which they attend school if they felt their vote would count more.

According to Declare Yourself’s survey, 37 percent of voters said that they primarily look for a presidential candidate who agrees with them on the issues. This is also different from surveys in years past, in which respondents have traditionally cited character as a more important attribute of a presidential candidate than agreement on political issues, according to a Nov. 6 Declare Yourself press release. The national issue cited as most important to the largest group of voters was prices/cost of living (33 percent), followed by jobs (13 percent), education (11 percent), and health care (9 percent). Those issues cited by the least number of voters were terrorism (2 percent) and racism (1 percent).

Forty-two percent of those surveyed identified as Democrats, 24 percent identified as Republicans, 20 percent identified as Independents, and 2 percent stated that they were members of another party, such as the Green or Libertarian parties.

Forty-eight percent of respondents identified themselves as full-time students, with an additional 9 percent identifying themselves as part-time students.

Twenty-six percent of those surveyed said they voted in the northeast, the largest percentage of any region.

Carnegie Mellon students’ views reflected these trends.

“Young people came out to vote this year because for the first time in history, they were actually paid some attention to. Since so much time and energy was focused on us, it was expected that we’d go out and vote,” stated Rebecca Hirsch, a sophomore political science major and secretary of College Republicans, via e-mail.

Although she voted for McCain, Hirsch understood why so many of her peers supported Obama.

“Being young and charismatic, Obama would naturally appeal to young people more,” she stated. “Obama also put a huge amount of time, energy, and money into reaching out to young people, a historically forgotten demographic of voters.”

Other students agreed that the majority of voters in the youngest demographic often vote Democratic.

“I think polls show college students are more liberal but that doesn’t mean some won’t support McCain and Palin, ” said Katie Bergman-Bock, a senior policy and management major, in Rangos on election night.

Bergman-Bock, who is from Kentucky, said she re-registered in Pennsylvania once it was established as a swing state.

“I felt like my presidential vote here would make a little more difference because Kentucky usually goes red,” she said.

Eric Foote, a senior computer science major, made the opposite decision — choosing to vote absentee in his home state of New York.

“It was kind of a toss-up,” he said at the Rangos event. “I could have probably influenced the presidential election more here, but I voted absentee because I have an interest in the local elections [in New York].”

Foote said he enjoyed the political climate on campus in the days leading up to the election.

“My impression is that CMU is a Democratic campus,” he said. “Most kids here agreed that they were going to vote Democratic, so there’s a sense that we’re all rooting for the same guy.”

Perkins decided to vote absentee in her home state of Ohio, but for a different reason — a McCain supporter, she thought that Pennsylvania would go to Obama and felt that Ohio was more up in the air.

“My vote would be put to better use in Ohio,” she said.

Perkins acknowledged the reasons why the majority of her peers supported Obama.

“I think it had a lot to do with the fact that people are really dissatisfied with Bush’s presidency,” she said. “Obama is young, he’s new, he’s kind of a Kennedy-like figure.”

Perkins said she supported McCain because of his positions on issues that were of primary importance to her, specifically his opposition to abortion and support of the war in Iraq.

“I thought McCain had more experience than Obama, and I didn’t like how far to the left Obama was before the campaign. McCain aligned more with my views because he was a moderate conservative,” she said.

Despite McCain’s defeat, Perkins is optimistic about the future of the United States.

“If Barack Obama does succeed, it will be good for the country,” she said. “I don’t feel bitter about it.”

Hirsch echoed Perkins’ views.

“I agree with John McCain on such issues as the economy, the Iraq war, and social issues. I primarily vote for a candidate based on the issues, not on the appeal of the person,” she stated.

Hirsch said she was “disappointed” with the election outcome, but “every American, regardless of who they voted for, should support our next president.”

But will young people continue their allegiance after the election hype dies down?

Of the respondents in the Declare Yourself survey, 61 percent said they will be more active in politics in the future, while only 2 percent said they would be less active; 37 percent said they will participate the same amount.

“The economy has to improve, and people need to feel part of the campaign,” Johansson said. “If people feel they’re included, they will feel more active in politics. If Obama does a good job of involving youth, they will continue to be involved.”