Sunday, November 9, 2008

Youth Vote in the 2008 Election

Now that Election 2008 has been completed and analysts have had several days to watch exit-poll and other data roll in, some impressions of the youth vote (18-29) are starting to crystallize. First, some basic data, from the organization CIRCLE...

Noting that, "...youth voter turnout is the percentage of eligible 18-29 year olds who voted," CIRCLE estimates that around 52 or 53 percent of eligible 18-29 year olds voted this year. This figure continues the upward trend from 1996 (37%), 2000 (41%), and 2004 (48%).

[The 48% youth participation rate in 2004 can (roughly) be broken down further, by multiplying the following two figures from here: "In 2004, 81.6% of registered 18-29 year olds voted in the Presidential elections. Only 60% of 18-29 year olds were registered to vote in that election."]

However, again according to CIRCLE:

Young people (ages 18-29) represented 18 percent of the voters in Tuesday’s election, according to the National Exit Polls (NEP) conducted by Edison/Mitofsky. This is one point higher than in 1996, 2000 and 2004, when young voters represented 17 percent of voters in each presidential election, according to the NEP.

What this means is that, concurrent with youth voters' ever-increasing participation in recent elections (relative to their same-age counterparts in previous years), there has also been rising voter participation in older age groups. Thus, 18-29 year olds have not increased their share of the overall electorate much, from 17% in the past to 18% this year.

Purely in terms of turnout, it seems fair to say that youth voters participated somewhere in between the visions of the most optimistic and most skeptical observers.

The biggest story of this year's youth vote, therefore, would appear to be the unusually lopsided distribution of candidate preference: Obama 66%, McCain 32%. The full electoral implications of this margin are developed in this document:

In 2008, 18% of the electorate was comprised of 18-29 year-olds. That figure, when multiplied by the 34 percent differential in Obama voting equals 6.1 points, or a majority of Obama's popular vote margin. Had the Democratic 18-29 year-old vote stayed the same as 2004's margin, Obama would have won by about 1 to 2 points, and would not have won 73 electoral votes from Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, or Indiana.

I am based at Texas Tech Univesity in the deeply "red" (Republican) state of Texas. I was amazed, therefore, to see exit-poll data showing that Obama carried the 18-29 vote in the Lone Star State, with 54%. All of the age groups of older Texans went for McCain, most dramatically the 66% of 65-and-older voters who went for the Arizona senator.

As social scientists, we aim not only to document trends, but also to understand why things turned out as they did. As detailed here, "Generation We" writer Eric Greenberg commissioned a major study of the so-called "Millenial" generation (born from 1978-2000).

Among the attitudes and values found to characterize the Millenials, their self-reported openness to innovations and new ideas appears to map onto some of the themes of emerging adulthood, such as trying out new things and learning to think for oneself.

Millennials pride themselves not only on their recognition that the status quo has failed but also on their refusal to be constrained by past conventions. Of all the attributes on which they were asked to compare themselves to earlier generations of Americans, they identified their willingness to "embrace innovation and new ideas" as the variable that most differentiates them from older Americans...

Young persons' "refusal to be constrained by past conventions" was apparent beyond the presidential election. On California's Proposition 8, exit polls revealed 18-29 year olds to be the only age group in which a majority took the pro-same-sex marriage position (61% for "No"). In mirror image, the oldest voters (65 and older) came down 61% in opposition to same-sex marriage (voting "Yes" on the measure).

The source of older voters' conservatism in the 2008 election cannot be determined solely by exit polls from last Tuesday, with longitudinal studies being necessary. Were today's older voters more liberal at earlier points in their lives and then become more conservative with age (known as an aging effect)? Or perhaps was there something about becoming an adult in the years roughly from 1945-1960 that would make today's older voters more conservative (known as a cohort effect)? (See here for an illustration of these effects.)

If the 18-29 year-old voters of today retain their liberal values throughout their adult life spans -- and this is a big if -- then the Democratic Party will be in good shape for a long time. Quoting again from the article about Greenberg's research:

Born between 1978 and 2000, the Millennials currently include 95 million young people up to 30 years of age -- the biggest, most diverse, and best-educated age cohort in the history of the nation. In 2016, they will be 100 million strong and positioned to dominate the American political scene for 30-40 years.

UPDATE: Over at, Kristen Soltis has written an interesting piece entitled "The GOP Faces Long-Term Challenge With Young and Independents." Below, I reproduce two paragraphs that I feel are particularly relevant to the study of emerging adulthood (along with Soltis's bibliographic references):

Scholars have noted that early adulthood plays a key role in the creation of political generations. In 1974, Beck described that young voters are primarily responsible for the birth of electoral realignment.(1) Billingsley and Tucker (1987) follow this analysis with the claim that political generations are often defined by political events occurring during young adulthood. (2) Indeed, the generation of voters in the 18-29 age group for the 2008 election were made up of those whose young adult political life would likely have included the events of September 11th as well as the expansion of political news availability via cable news and the Internet - not to mention the entire Bush Administration. The long term impact on the GOP of this swing will be felt for years to come i[f] young voters are not appealed to with a positive, modern agenda that speaks to their concerns - the environment, energy, the economy, education, and entitlement reform. (Perhaps there's something with the letter "e"?)


The Republican Party has two major challenges that jump from these numbers that must be tackled. First, the GOP must win back the youth vote. There's little reason to believe that this year was an aberration - that young voters came out for Obama but will fade away and become apathetic in years to come. However, barring major life events, young voters who leave a pattern of habitual non-voting by voting for the first time will be carried [by] "inertia" to continue voting in future elections. As more and more young voters go to the polls, the norms surrounding voting among that age cohort will change the social costs of voting in a way that provides positive peer reinforcement, contributing to higher turnout. (3) Furthermore, the longer the GOP waits to try to win these voters back, the harder it will be - prior study has already established that as voters age, their partisan identification grows stronger. (4)


1) Beck, Paul. (1974). A socialization theory of partisan realignments. In Richard Niemi and associates (eds.), The Politics of Future Citizens. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2) Billingsley, K., & Tucker, C. (1987). Generations, Status and Party Identification: A Theory of Operant Conditioning. Political Behavior, 9(4), 305-322

3)Plutzer, E. (2002). Becoming a habitual voter: inertia, resources, and growth in young adulthood. American Political Science Review, 96(1), pp 41-56.

4)Claggett, W. (1981). Partisan acquisition versus partisan identity: life-cycle, generation, and period effects, 1952-1976. American Journal of Political Science, 25(2), pp 193-214. and Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., and Stokes, D. (1960). The American voter. New York; Wiley.