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Year of the Youth Vote November 6, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Back in January, Time dubbed 2008 “The Year of the Youth Vote.”  It appears they were correct. Pollsters consider “youth voters” citizens between 18 and 29 years old. CIRCLE (from whom I got all these stats) estimates that youth voter turnout was between 49 and 55 percent (votes are still being counted).  In the three preceding presidential elections, youth voter turnout rose from 37 to 48 percent. In each of those elections, youth votes accounted for just 17 percent of ballots cast (overall turnout also rose).  This year, the National Exit Poll projects our share of votes at 18 percent.  This increase may seem small, but even a minor vote share increase in a year of strong overall turnout is significant.

Students comprise about a quarter of the youth vote. We will have to wait for more detailed statistics, but an examination of votes in counties with major universities suggests that students broke heavily Democratic this year. Youth voters chose Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain by a whopping 34-point margin (66-32), and many analysts believe that students were pivotal in electing Democrats up and down the ballot.  Obama won the youth vote in 41 states with over 80 percent support in some states.

Obama’s campaign pursued the youth vote much more actively than McCain’s. While I knew this intuitively, I wanted to see if I could quantify this assertion – Yes I Can. There are 23 special “coalition” pages on McCain’s website.  While bikers (leather, not spandex), racing fans, and lawyers were important enough to get their own pages, students were not. Even Lebanese Americans got their own page. Now I have nothing against Lebanese Americans; unlike Senator McCain, I never implied that ‘Arab’ is derogatory word. But the fact that McCain’s website would court a decidedly minor demographic and not students is absurd. If ever there was a demographic to appeal to online…But my quest for quantification continued.

Barack Obama is an Arab.

A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word “students” returns just 317 hits, and some of the first hits aren’t even about us, they clarify Sarah Palin’s position on teaching creationism in schools (she’s for it, but thankfully that doesn’t matter anymore). Conversely, the same search on barackobama.com returns 931,000 hits.

Students for Barack Obama was largely responsible for this disparity. SFBO, the official student wing of the campaign, was almost entirely student-run. It had hundreds of chapters at schools in every state and tapped students to volunteer, canvass, phone-bank, and register voters throughout the nation. Full disclosure: I started working for SFBO nearly a year and a half ago, but my own considerable bias aside, it is quite telling that our group had no counterpart in the McCain campaign.   I was unable to find even a state-level organization. The campaign supported efforts on individual campuses and external groups like College Republicans, but did not create any organization of or for new supporters.  At least none that was ever meant to be found online.

Why? The obvious explanation is that McCain was expending his resources elsewhere because students heavily favored Obama, but that has major implications. Sure, demographics have their trends, but do campaigns regularly leave such a large, important group unchallenged? Young voters are not just a subset of America, we’re a cross-section of it. We come from every part of the nation, every socio-economic situation, and as diverse a racial background as our country has to offer. And you know those future generations that will have to pay for today’s mistakes? That’s us. And our kids. Considering the number of recent mistakes, shouldn’t our perspective matter?

Vote by Age

Young voters won the election for Obama. Graphic from CNN.com, data from the National Exit Poll.

In this election, it did. And what of the future? Regardless of how they vote, many young voters consider themselves independents. That sentiment typically dwindles in higher age brackets. It is conventional electoral wisdom that lifelong party identification forms some time in a voter’s first few elections. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 55.4 percent of the youth vote, the highest percentage since the voting age dropped to 18. That election had formative, lasting effects on the youth voters who participated; their age cohort still trends more Republican than those immediately younger and older. Although we are not all predestined to become Democrats and could maintain our relative political independence, this certainly doesn’t bode well for the Republican Party.

At least 22 million young people voted in this election. While youth turnout increased, what is extraordinary is how lopsided our support was. Obama tied McCain among voters aged 45-64 and lost among voters 65+. According to CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, who studies the youth vote, we are Obama’s core constituency and he couldn’t have won without us. We won’t be youth voters forever, but our generation has definitively asserted itself on the political stage. Let’s keep it up.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

The Youth Vote September 29, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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My fellow Young Americans: please vote.

The pundits have repeatedly prophesized the rise of the youth vote during the last few election cycles, but despite significant increases in participation, we have yet to become a game-changer.  Not because we can’t, but rather because we have chosen not to. 

According to the 2006 census, there are 29.5 million potential voters under age 24, and nearly a quarter of the American electorate is under the age of 30.  Yet youth voter turnout has been low over the last few decades, only recently reaching rates nearing 50%. Now, we did see greater participation during the primaries, but the youth vote still lagged well behind the other age groups.  Here on the campus of Duke University, only about 10% of registered students voted (so we’re looking at well under 10% of the student body heading to the polls). 

As a busy, active college student myself, I do not mean to suggest that all students are idle and uninvolved; students are engaged in communities around the country and the world.  Even on the national political scene, many thousands of students are currently working to exercise our collective power.

Groups like College Democrats of America and Young Republicans are thriving, and we are finally seeing presidential campaigns court the youth vote as a major demographic.   Well, we are really just seeing a campaign (singular) court the youth vote – only one of the remaining candidates has given us respect and responsibility in this election.  While I knew this intuitively, I wanted to see if I could quantify or justify my assertion.  This quest led me to some interesting statistics: there are 22 special “coalition” pages on Sen. McCain’s website.  While ‘Bikers,’ ‘Racing Fans,’ and ‘Lawyers’ get their own pages, students do not.  (I know the link is dead, that’s the point.)  Evidently to the McCain campaign we are not a demographic worth the time it takes to write a webpage.  Just to emphasize this point, Lebanese Americans (no offense to them), US citizens who trace their ancestry to a country with a population of under 4.2 million people within their own borders, are apparently of more importance to John McCain than all the students in our country (Lebanese or not).  And that’s utterly absurd.

So if we don’t get a page on McCain’s website, do we appear there at all?  A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word “students” returns just 671 hits.  The same search on barackobama.com returns 437,000 hits.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s over 650x more hits on Sen. Barack Obama’s site.  And to add insult to injury, some of the first hits on McCain’s site aren’t even about students, they clarify Sarah Palin’s position on teaching creationism in schools (she’s for it and thinks that dinosaurs and humans coexisted 6000 years ago).  Just to give you a few more comparisons, allow me to present more domain search results from the McCain website:

  • “reform” – 6,800 hits
  • “maverick” – 587 hits + 2 more hits for the misspelled “mavrick,” inspired by my favorite sign from the RNC (below)
  • “lipstick” – 358 hits (more than half of the number of hits for “students”)
No well-dressed, wealthy republican adult left behind.

Bush's education legacy: apparently well-dressed, wealthy Republican adults were left behind too. Really, nobody at the RNC saw him or said anything?

But I digress.

Let’s continue to juxtapose McCain’s website with Obama’s.  The disparity in website student emphasis is due, in part, to Students for Barack Obama.  SFBO is the official student wing of the Obama campaign that, with the exception of a handful of Obama for America Youth Vote staff, is entirely student-organized and run.  It has been operating for well over a year now and has hundreds of chapters at universities, colleges, graduate schools, and high schools around the country.  This grassroots student network has been volunteering, canvassing, and registering voters throughout the nation.  On Obama’s website, students can find or start local chapters, ask questions, submit policy suggestions, download organizing materials, peruse student blogs, and even interact with each other other the campaign’s own social network, my.barackobama.com.  In the interest of self-disclosure, I have been and currently am involved with SFBO, but my own [considerable] bias aside, it is quite telling that our group has no counterpart in the McCain campaign.  John McCain has ceded the youth vote to the Democrats.  So let’s take it.

There is far too much at stake in this election to disengage from the process.  We need to realize that our government’s actions affect our lives even if we don’t pay attention.  Presidential elections are about far more than those two candidates.  Just look at the Supreme Court, where two liberal justices are poised to retire from the presently “balanced” bench.  Given the young ages of the conservative justices that Bush appointed and the life-tenures of the court, the next election could well determine the outlook of the Supreme Court for decades to come.  And so much, such as the fate of Roe v. Wade, hangs in that balance. The time for apathy has ended.

Or not:

…but seriously, it has.  New voter registrations are trending heavily in favor of the Democratic Party, and young voters are driving many of those numbers.  But registrations don’t win elections, votes do.  If you are registered to vote, go vote on November 4th.  Tell your friends to vote.  Nag them.  If you aren’t registered to vote yet, register online now, and then vote.  It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s so important.   Plus you get a neat sticker!



I got bored in class and ran a few more searches.  Enjoy:

  • The word ‘change’ appears 1.43 million times within the barackobama.com domain.  That’s only about 300,000 times fewer than the word ‘the.’  As Sen. Biden would be happy to tell you, that’s certainly not more of the same.
  • “GILF” appears only on Obama’s domain (4 times), but both domains are graced with the term “MILF.”  I find the ‘GILF vacuum’ on McCain’s site ironic given that Republicans are far more likely to consider Gov. Palin a grandmother yet, but that’s a whole different story.
  • “Palin” appears nearly 4x as many times on Obama’s domain than it does on McCain’s…whose base is this woman rallying again? (This almost certainly derives from Obama’s site being much more expansive and the fact that his supporters are more technologically inclined, but it’s still interesting)

Please feel free to comment with any other fun searches you can think of to run.  If you don’t know how to do a domain search, type “[keyword] site:[genericwebsiteURL]” into a google search bar.  

Ex) “hope site:barackobama.com”.