When Young People Vote, Democrats Win

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In 2008, when the youth vote helped propel President Obama to victory, the most cynical among us thought that young people would soon be joining their ranks.  They would become disillusioned with the realities of governing after an idealistic campaign, and would stay home in this and future elections.   But as it turns out, the youth vote was have been even more influential in electing the President this time around than in 2008.  

The Pew Research Center has a fascinating report on the impact of the youth vote in the 2012 election, which shows that in 2012, Obama won 60 percent of the vote from the under-30 bloc – slightly down from his 66 percent in 2008. But this time around, young voters made up 19 percent of the electorate, up from 18 percent in 2008.  And in some key battleground states (like Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania), where Obama lost more significant ground among the older crowd, support from young voters pushed him into the margin of victory.

The 2008 and 2012 elections were the first in four decades where the youth have really split off from their older counterparts. Young voters went for Obama at a rate 12 percentage points higher than the over-30 crowd in this election, and 16 percentage points higher in 2008. Before that, as evidenced in the chart below, there was hardly a spread between the two groups.

While there are certainly a number of potential reasons for the sudden and sharp divergence between young and old, it may well have to do with race, brought to a head by having the first presidential candidate in the racial minority.  

Within the under-30 crowd, the demographics with whom Obama lost ground in this election were generally the same as in the electorate at large – whites, men, independents.  But racial and ethnic minorities and women helped buoy him.  And while women may not have much room to grow as a share of the electorate, racial and ethnic minorities certainly do, and are on track to become a majority by 2050.  Already, only 58 percent of the under-30s are white and non-Hispanic, compared to 76 percent of voters over 30.  

A previous Pew study on the generation gap found that, “Older generations – Boomers and especially Silents [aged 65 and older]– do not fully embrace diversity. Fewer in these groups see the increasing populations of Latinos and Asians, as well as more racial intermarriage, as changes for the better.” But as the more diverse and tolerant younger crowd becomes a larger share of the electorate, there will be less and less room for backwards thinking.

And indeed, part of their post-election soul searching has centered around highlighting diversity within the party and softening stances on issues like immigration. Now that the 2012 election proved that 2008 wasn't a fluke, the Republican Party finally has to pay attention.  

And if you think the current batch of 18 – 30 year olds are taking us in the right direction, just wait until the current Big Bird fans hit the polls.  

About Author

Emily Cadik

Emily is a Texas ex-pat and proud Longhorn living in Washington, DC, where she remains connected to the Lone Star State through her work on BOR and her enthusiasm for breakfast tacos. She works on affordable housing policy, and writes about health care, poverty and other social justice issues.

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