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Blacks, youths turn out; vote record holds

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tuesday's presidential election was historic for many reasons, but achieving the record-shattering voter turnout many expected wasn´t one of them.

"It was not at all historic in terms of turnout," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. "You had all this advance hype and no-nothing political scientists on TV hyping something that didn´t exist."

Mr. Gans, an expert on election turnout, estimated total voter turnout figures ultimately coming in at between 126.5 million and 128.5 million. About 122.2 million voted in 2004, or 60.7 percent of eligible voters.

He estimated this year´s percentage of eligible voters at 60.7 percent to 61.7 percent, which would either tie the 2004 figure or surpass it slightly. Almost every presidential election sets a record for absolute number of voters due to population growth.

Many political analysts, struck by long early-voting lines and massive voter-registration efforts, had predicted a banner year for voter turnout. While Democrats increased their voter numbers, Republicans may have experienced a decrease.

In Republican states, such as South Dakota and Wyoming, for example, early figures show a voter drop.

"I think you saw intensity on one side and not the other," Mr. Gans said. "The one place you had enormous turnout by both parties was North Carolina, which had three very tight races."

Democrats wound up winning North Carolina´s close Senate and gubernatorial contests, while the presidential candidates remain tied with 50 percent of the vote each.

Another turnout guru, George Mason University professor Michael McDonald, foresaw a greater voter total at 133.3 million. His estimate would bring the number of eligible participating voters to 62.5 percent, higher than 2004 but just shy of the 62.6 percent recorded in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson presidential landslide.

"I don´t think we´re going to beat the 1964 number," Mr. McDonald said.

At the same time, he cautioned against reading too much into the day-after estimates because most states are still grappling with their provisional and mail-in ballots.

The most historic aspect of the 2008 race, from a turnout perspective, was the number of black voters. Their absolute numbers and percentage of the vote total was expected to increase sharply, largely because of Barack Obama´s presence on the ticket.

In the District, which is more than 60 percent black, there was record-high turnout, which analysts saw as a harbinger for overall black voting totals. Federal elections officials are expected to release final figures from this year´s balloting Dec. 10.

Young voters, those between 18 and 29, were expected to increase their share of the vote from 17 percent to 18 percent, said Peter Levine of Tufts University near Boston.

But the most historic aspect of the youth vote was their almost monolithic support for Mr. Obama. Young voters backed Mr. Obama over John McCain by a whopping margin, setting a modern-day record.

"They voted for Barack Obama by a huge margin, 66 [percent] to 32 percent. This is enormous by any previous comparison," said Mr. Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts.

Mr. Obama shattered the previous record held by President Reagan, who won 59 percent of the youth vote in his 1984 re-election landslide. President Clinton, by comparison, won 53 percent of that vote in his 1996 campaign. Statistics on the youth vote are only available since 1972, the year the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

Parallels between this year's race and the 1984 election abound. Both featured a surge of coming-of-age voters energized by a movement candidate. In the 1984 case, most of those young voters who backed Mr. Reagan tended to remain in the conservative camp as they grew older.

"The big question mark is what happens next [during the Obama presidency]," Mr. Levine said. "Remember that Reagan was popular over his two terms."