- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008


Eighteen- to 29-year-old voters received a lot of attention from the media and campaign professionals leading up to this election. Would massive registration and get-out-the vote efforts boost this group’s electoral participation to unprecedented levels? Would they provide the margin of victory for Barack Obama? And, would a surge among younger voters lock in a new generation of Democratic partisans? Here’s what we know.

First, younger voters accounted for about the same share of the electorate as they did four years ago. In 2004, 18-29-year-olds represented 17 percent of all ballots cast. Four years later, this group made up 18 percent of the electorate. Accounting for population growth, younger Americans did boost their numbers fractionally compared to ‘04, but nowhere near the massive swell many pundits predicted.

Second, although younger-voter turnout failed to produce sharp gains, they did tilt significantly more Democratic compared to the last presidential election. That hurt John McCain. In 2004, John Kerry defeated George W. Bush 54-45 percent within this age group. In 2008, Mr. Obama won 66 percent to 32 percent among younger voters. In other words, the Democrats expanded from a 9-point margin in ‘04 to a 34-point edgethis year This represents the most lopsided defeat among voters under 30 since 1964 when Barry Goldwater lost by a 44-point margin, according to the American National Election Studies.

Third, exit polls suggest this wide margin among voters aged 18-29 alone almost provided Mr. Obama the edge he needed to win the White House. While the president-elect won overwhelmingly among voters under 30, he beat Mr. McCain by only 2 points (50-48 percent) among voters 30 and over. In other words, 2008 might have been a nail-biter absent the huge gap among voters under 30.

What do these numbers suggest about the longer-term political prospects for Democrats? Are these younger Americans now locked in as partisans for generations? Here the outlook gets a little cloudier. Political scientists Karen M. Kaufmann, John Petrocik and Daron Shaw’s book, “Unconventional Wisdom: Facts and Myths About American Voters,” contains some valuable insights about what these trends among younger voters might mean for the future.

Republicans might take some consolation in a few of Miss Kaufman and her colleagues’ findings. For example, traditionally younger voters are among those least tied to their political party. Partisan attachments usually increase over time, but younger voters are still malleable. So, while they broke heavily for the Democrats in 2008, they could still swing back down the road.

The authors analyze several cohorts of younger voters through their life cycles, grouped by when they began voting: before 1946 (pre-World War II voters), 1946-62 (post-World War II voters), 1963-1979 (Vietnam-era voters), 1980-1991 (Reagan-era voters), 1992-99 (Clinton-era voters) and 1997-2004 (today’s young voters).

Not all, the groups behaved the same, either in their initial partisan orientation or how their voting behavior changed over time. The pre-World War II voters (those most heavily influenced by the New Deal) tilted heavily Democratic and stayed that way as they aged. The next two groups - post-World War II and Vietnam-era voters - also started out voting Democratic, but tilted more toward the Republican Party as they aged. Reagan-era voters started with only a slight Democratic edge, but then also tended to vote more Republican as they grew older. Finally, the Clinton-era Democrats and today’s young voters swung back to the Democrats again and their future patterns still unknown. Miss Kaufman and her colleagues argue young voters tend to reflect the dominant political climate when they come of age, but where they start doesn’t always predict where they end up.

Engaging young voters is the age-old challenge, according to Miss Kaufman and her colleagues. They “do not much like parties or care about elections. So while they have recently been voting more Democratic than their older brethren, young voters are at best reluctant participants in U.S. elections.” The good news for Democrats is that those who did choose to participate this year sided heavily with Mr. Obama. They found his message of change compelling and inspirational. Yet what this means for the future is still a mystery. Democrats are already working hard to lock in these younger voters for future elections by trying to engage them in helping the new president.

Republicans need to find a way to get a normally inattentive group to take a second look at the party. But as Vince Lombardi liked to say, “It’s not what you say, but what people hear.” This year young voters were hearing a lot more of what the Democrats had to say.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Enterprises.

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