2008: The Year of the Young Voter?

October 20, 2008 |  Tagged | Comments Off on 2008: The Year of the Young Voter?

Young voters have never been the deciding factor in a presidential election.  The 18- to 29-year-old demographic has historically lagged far behind other age groups in both voter registration and turnout.  Yet in 2008, this formerly underrepresented group of potential voters is poised to have a major impact on the election outcome.

An estimated 44 million 18- to 29-year-olds will be eligible to vote in November, constituting one-fifth (21 percent) of the voting eligible population.  These “Millennials” appear both engaged and enthusiastic about voting in the 2008 presidential election.  A recent USA Today/MTV/Gallup Poll of 18- to 29-year-olds reported that 75 percent of young eligible voters are registered to vote and 73 percent plan to vote in the 2008 election.  By contrast, the voter turnout rate among 18- to 29-year-olds in 2000 was just 40 percent.  Young voters showed some momentum in 2004, with 49 percent casting votes in that presidential race, but continued to represent the lowest turnout by age.

General election polls (including the USA Today poll) indicate that 18- to 29-year-olds overwhelmingly support Democratic candidate Barack Obama.  Young voters had an impact on Obama’s primary election, helping him to defeat Senator Hillary Clinton.  Americans are all too familiar with the inaccuracy of polling.  Yet the USA Today poll may be a more accurate measure of young voters’ attitudes than other polls because it included interviews by both landline and mobile phone.  Polls conducted for major television stations and newspapers typically do not conduct interviews by mobile phone, which may misrepresent young voters.

The potential power of this demographic has captured the attention of the media and Hollywood.  New campaigns feature celebrities encouraging young people to vote and talk to their family about the election.  Comedienne Sarah Silverman urged young Jewish Americans to make a “Great Schlep” to the crucial swing state of Florida to discuss voting with their grandparents.  While these campaigns may be tongue-in-cheek, they raise an important question: just how influential will young voters be in the 2008 election?  The USA Today poll reported that 22 percent of young voters’ political views have been influenced “a great deal” by their parents.  In 2008, might young people’s enthusiasm have a similar influence on their parents (or grandparents)?

If young voters do have an impact at the polls next month, it will be in spite of many roadblocks to exercising their constitutional right.  Here in Virginia and nationwide, young people – particularly students – often encounter disenfranchisement.  Whether due to apathy or problems at the polls, young voter turnout in Virginia decreased four points from 2000 to 2004.  Regardless of their turnout rate, it will be no surprise to hear stories of additional young voter disenfranchisement on Election Day.

Overall, the evidence points to a potentially landmark year for young voters.  The question remains: will they actually turn up and vote?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user RockTheVote2008.

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