- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Young voters have surged in registration and turnout this year, portending more political potency for this cohort of Americans. Most believe the participatory swell is due to Barack Obama’s bid for the White House over the past year. And indeed, ballooning turnout and young voters’ support could propel the Illinois senator into the Oval Office.

But beyond Obama-induced excitement this year, younger voters have been undergoing a transformation in American politics for over a decade - a tilt toward the Democratic Party that predates this year’s boom. In other words, while Mr. Obama has generated new support, his candidacy also reinforces and expands trends toward the Democrats within this age group under way for several years now.

Young voters became more reliably Democratic in the 1990s. Prior to that time, voters under 30 sided with Republicans in six out of the 10 presidential elections between 1952 and 1992. But then Bill Clinton inaugurated a sharp movement of younger voters against the Republican Party. When it comes to presidential vote choice, those under 30 have now moved reliably into the Democratic camp. According to the University of Michigan’s American National Election Study (ANES), John Kerry’s 65 percent-35 percent margin over George W. Bush in 2004 was the largest percentage ever garnered by a Democrat among younger voters since the inception of the survey. These ANES numbers are somewhat at odds with exit polls, which show Mr. Clinton actually doing better among younger voters than Mr. Kerry. But one fact remains: Americans under 30 - since 1992 - are now a rock-solid Democratic constituency when it comes to presidential voting.

These voting trends are confirmed in more recent 2008 polling information about the partisan identification of younger Americans. Pew Research, in an April 28 report, for example, finds Democrats now lead in party identification among voters under age 30 by a 58 percent-33 percent margin. In 1992, the parties were near parity, according to the report’s principal author, Scott Keeter. The partisan divide is particularly large among young women who now identify with Democrats by a whopping 35 points (63 percent-28 percent).

But what about turnout? Don’t those under 30 participate at a much lower rate compared to other citizens? Not really.

It’s true younger Americans exhibit lower levels of registration compared to those over 65 years of age (for example, registration among those 65+ is about 24 points higher than among Americans under 30, according to Census data). Yet the proportion of the electorate represented by people 18-29 is about the same as that made up of senior citizens - a much-vaunted voter bloc. Voters under 30 constituted slightly more than 20 percent of the electorate during the 1970s and then stayed at about that level, declining slightly to 17 percent in 1996, 2000 and 2004, matching almost exactly the proportion of those 65 and older in presidential elections.

These sharp identification gains and anti-Republican voting patterns could spell long-term problems for the Republican Party. It’s true, partisan identification isn’t a perfect predictor of votes. Republicans have won presidential elections even when they lag behind the Democrats in party allegiance. But if today’s cohort of new partisans remains committed - and votes that way - they could provide an electoral boon to the Democrats for a generation.

Gary Andres, who served in the first Bush administration, is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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