Youth Vote: Democratic Movement, or Fad?

CALIFORNIA, Pa. - If anyone still has doubts about how helpful the youth vote was to electing Democrat Barack Obama president, they need to look no further than this college town about an hour south of Pittsburgh.

In a normal election year, the two precincts serving the bulk of students at California University of Pennsylvania attract a total of about 400 voters, according to election watchers here. But on Election Day 2008, that number more than quadrupled to a combined total of more than 1,700. And in those precincts, Obama crushed Republican nominee John McCain by margins of between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1.

It was no accident. Led by Shinesa Chowdhury, a 20-year-old Cal U. senior, the campus Obama campaign attracted 130 volunteers who "blitzed" classrooms and buttonholed diners in the student union. In just three months, they registered 2,000 students - half the new registrations in Washington County.

"Everyone had their own reason for volunteering, but everyone was fed up with the politics of the last eight years," Chowdhury said.

This pro-Obama spirit among young voters was mirrored across the country. An "Out There" analysis of exit polls finds that Obama won the youth vote not only in Democratic-leaning states but lots of Republican ones as well - a looming problem for Republicans, who could potentially lose an entire generation of voters to the Democrats.

"The GOP should be worried about the trend," said state Sen. Tracy Potter (D) of North Dakota, where Obama won 51 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in a deep red state with a Republican governor and legislature. "It reminds me of 1980, when it was clear that the Democrats had lost the youth vote to Reagan. Those youngsters stayed in the Republican Party. Democrats here are almost giddy at the prospect of turning young Obama supporters into new enthusiasm for Democratic campaigns over the next decade."

Overall, the trendlines for young voters do not look good for the GOP. As political journalist Ron Brownstein has noted, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry carried 54 percent of voters younger than 30. In the 2006 midterms, 60 percent voted Democratic in House races. This year, Obama trounced McCain among voters under 30 by a 2-to-1 margin. Obama even flipped the results among young white voters. According to Brownstein, Bush carried 55 percent of whites under 30 in both his elections, while Obama won 54 percent of those voters.

The patterns are equally striking on a state-by-state basis. Obama won the 18-to-29 vote in 38 states and the District of Columbia, while in one state, Arkansas, the two candidates tied. McCain, by contrast, won the youngest voters in eight states. (For three states, data is not available.)

Obama didn't just win the youth vote in places that have long been considered blue, such as the group of 11 states plus Washington, D.C., where he garnered at least 70 percent of young voters. Nor were Obama's wins limited to formerly red states that turned blue this year, such as Indiana (63 percent), Nevada (67), North Carolina (72) and Virginia (60).

Rather, Obama managed to sweep the 18-to-29 vote in some of the most deeply Republican states in the union. They include not just North Dakota but also Alabama (50 percent), Kansas (51), Kentucky (51), Mississippi (56), South Carolina (55), Tennessee (55) and Texas (54).

He even managed to win the 30-to-44-year-old vote in three historically red states: Georgia (56 percent), North Carolina (76) and South Carolina (54). As former Atlanta Journal-Constitution political journalist Tom Baxter put it recently in the Southern Political Report , if South Carolina voters up to age 44 had been the only ones allowed to vote on Nov. 4, Obama would have won the Palmetto State by a slightly larger margin than McCain carried it - that is, by close to double digits.

This begs two questions. First, is the GOP worried about losing a whole generation of young voters? And second, should they be?

The answer to the first question is a bit murky. Most inquiries by "Out There" to state-level Republican officials were not returned. Those who did respond acknowledged, often cautiously, that there is a problem to be addressed.

"Republicans should be concerned that they are not communicating their message effectively," said Johanna Owens, who chairs the Lowcountry Young Republicans in South Carolina, speaking for herself rather than the party. "If the Republican Party would unite behind a conservative message and do a better job of communicating that message, I think you would see a different result."

The new, 31-year-old Mississippi GOP Chairman, Brad White, agreed, telling the Jackson Free Press after the election that although he had become involved with the party through the Teenage Republicans, the party in recent years "has dropped the ball on a lot of that stuff. It's very important to me that we reinvigorate some of these youth-recruitment programs in the state of Mississippi, and on the national level as well."

That said, political observers in red states where Obama won the youth vote suggested that the Republican orientation of their state is not going to change overnight.

For one thing, many Republican candidates in red states did well on Election Day. In Kansas, for instance, the GOP held its own in legislative seats and retook a congressional seat the Democrats had seized in 2006. In that district, "young Obama supporters did not provide the kind of support that many in the state had anticipated," said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

Moreover, state Democratic parties are not always able to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. In the South Carolina House, for example, Democrats let 49 Republicans run unopposed in the general election, while in the state Senate, Democrats offered no candidate in 19 races, noted Andy Brack, a former Democratic official who now publishes a political newsletter in Charleston, S.C. That meant Republicans had to win only five seats, several which had token opposition, to maintain control.

Then there's the Obama factor: Are Democrats winning future loyalists to the party as a whole, or are young newcomers mostly attracted to the new president?

Obama's success in Nebraska, where he won the youth vote as well as a single electoral vote, "is the accident of the euphoria surrounding this extraordinary effort, with respect intended," argues former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub (R). "They will not be there the next time, nor should pundits project such ideas unless they clearly advise that they are speculating."

Former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder (D) of Alabama agreed. "I would caution anybody to wait and see, because the Obama factor could turn out to be a personalized, transient phenomenon. Obama will not be on the 2010 ballot, and Obamamania may cool, with governing challenges and a reaction, by 2012."

Indeed, anyone at risk of overestimating the impact of young voters should note that, despite the successful efforts of the California University Obama campaign, McCain won Washington County, Pa., 52 percent to 47 percent.

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.