For election 08, youth voter turnout swells

Their numbers surged in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Will the trend continue?

Richard Ellis/Getty Images
Courting millennials: Barack Obama at the College of Charleston in South Carolina during the 2008 presidential campaign.
john gress/reuters
Youth interest: A woman tries to snap a photo of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Michigan.
SOURCE: CIRCLE's tabulations from the Current Population Survey, November (Voting) Supplements, 1972-2004 All analysis is for US citizens only/Rich Clabaugh

If politically active 20-somethings have their way, 2008 is going to be their year.

The "Millennials," as sociologists have dubbed them, have already shaken up the presidential primary races with their surprisingly large turnouts in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary at 13 percent and 43 percent respectively.

Political analysts are watching to see whether that increase in youth turnout holds when the politicking shifts from the retail-style handshaking in smaller states to the wholesale media buys and tarmac touchdowns in larger ones on Super Tuesday.

That's Feb. 5, when more than 20 states will hold primaries. If more young people turn out then, it could be the cementing of a trend started in 2000 when youth turnout started ticking upward. If you believe young people themselves, it is the beginning of a new brand of less cynical political engagement in the future.

"Super Tuesday puts the trend of higher youth involvement to the test," says Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "It forces us to explain the high voter turn out as either in terms of voter mobilization [which is easier in small states] or because of enthusiasm inspired by the candidates."

Talk to young people, and they have another reason as well: optimism. While "Gen-Xers" are known for their cynical alienation, these Millennials are socially active, engaged in volunteerism and determined to make the world a better place.

"Something is going on, that era of irony is finally playing itself out," says Marc Morgenstern, executive director of Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan youth voter mobilization organization in Los Angeles. "Cynicism and irony can only go so far. Eventually the pendulum has to swing the other way and it becomes cool again to care about things."

You can hear that in the voices of the young people who go to campaign events. In Las Vegas at a rally headlined by former President Clinton for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, on Monday, Jalon Sisson said politics is personal for him.

"It's my future," said the young Las Vegas resident. "What I really don't understand is why there aren't more young people here because ... we are the ones who are going to have to live with the problems of the future."

His friend Jarrell Roberts echoed another sentiment heard from many young people. It's a sense that the country hasn't been led well in their political lifetime, and they'd like to change that. "We just know from facts that President Bill Clinton was a way better president than President Bush," he says.

At an event for Barack Obama in Pahrump, Nev., another theme emerged: a desire among the young for the unvarnished truth.

"Even if [there comes a time when] we won't like to hear what he says, he'll still tell you the truth," says Claire Chase.

Despite all the enthusiasm, political analysts note that since 1972 young voters have been notoriously unreliable. Just ask Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont who staked his 2004 presidential bid on the youth vote only to be knocked out as a contender early in Iowa. Even with Mr. Dean's loss, more young people voted in 2004 than in 2000.

Here's a snapshot of what's been going on with young people ages 18 to 29 since 1972, according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). That year the Vietnam War and the draft prompted 55 percent of young people to come out and pull a lever for the candidate of their choice.

Then came Watergate and the youth turnout steadily declined for two decades, bottoming out at 40 percent in 1996 and 2000. It ticked up again when Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, but then dropped back down until 2000. Since then, at least for presidential elections, an increasing number of young people have come out to vote.

"We certainly are seeing something going on with young people," says Thomas Patterson, a political scientist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "If you're making a list of the things you'd like to [attribute] for the shift, Iraq is by far at the top of the list – George Bush is second."

The fact that both parties have active presidential campaigns with open races also helps, says Professor Patterson. Then there's technology. The Millennials are the wired generation, the scions of Facebook and MySpace social-networking websites. Voter mobilization groups like Declare Yourself and Rock the Vote are using them to demystify the political process, from registration to issues explanation. Each organization also hopes to register 2 million new young voters by the general election in November.

"Young people are also pioneering new online tools to connect up with other folks," says Karlo Marcelo, a researcher at CIRCLE at the University of Maryland in College Park. "I just saw this really neat tool called Vote Poke. You can enter in the name and address of a friend of yours and find out if they're registered to vote. If not, you can send them a note, saying 'Here's how you register online.' There are such simple things you can do now."

Despite the activity, young Americans still vote at lower levels than their older siblings, parents, and grandparents. But Mr. Marcelo and others are optimistic that this could be the year that changes and young people pass the 50 percent mark and close the gap with older generations.

"This could be the third election in a row that we've increased youth turnout," says Chrissy Faessen, a spokeswoman for Rock the Vote in Washington. "It's pretty exciting."

But that excitement extends only on the presidential and congressional levels, according to analysts. In local elections turnout has been "abysmal," particularly for the young. "They've become selective shoppers: they believe presidential politics is worth their time – the rest of it, not so much," says Patterson.

• Staff writer Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report in Las Vegas.

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