October 23rd, 2008
04:49 PM ET

The Unseen Avalanche: Young voters in 2008

Some Cincinnati, Ohio voters camp out overnight in order to be one of the first to cast their ballot early.
Some Cincinnati, Ohio voters camp out overnight in order to be one of the first to cast their ballot early.
Rob Grabow
Author, "
Voting with Our Pants Down"

Young voters, 44 million strong, are the country's second largest voting bloc this year. There are more of us than there are citizens of Spain, or residents in 40 Montanas. To provide a visual, if you were to lay us out flat lengthwise, we would circumnavigate the globe twice. The relevance of these numerical values and images bears on the fact we are going to turn out in record numbers this year.

But because we have a limited voice in the national political debate, the claim that we will cast ballots in droves may seem naive. What makes this election year different than others in past?

For starters, nearly 80 percent of young voters are registered to vote. And some 74 percent seriously plan on turning out this election. Those results are based on a self poll and should be understood in that context. Nevertheless, at minimum, these polls are a bellwether, indicative of a significant unseen catalyst.

True, registration doesn't guarantee turnout. However, a voter who makes it to the polls once is much more likely to visit again. And three times more young voters caucused in Iowa in 2008 during the Democratic primary than in 2004. Young voter turnout in New Hampshire was 271 percent higher than the previous presidential primary. On Super Tuesday, almost three-million young voters made it to the polls, significantly more than any Tuesday past. This baseline is also building on the bar established in 2004, a year that saw a near-record level of young voter participation, almost 50 percent. All of these trends should make your spine tingle, toes curl, and hair stand on end, because it means we're coming out.

If registration figures and primary turnout don't convince you that this year will be different for the youth vote, let me lob a question your way. When was the last time you read about young voters camping out overnight and standing in the rain to vote early – yes EARLY – in an election? As it turns out, it hasn't been that long. Two weeks ago, NPR ran a story about young voters doing just that Ohio. It's not an isolated occurrence either. Last week, CNN's Campbell Brown ran a brief segment about young voters in Colorado comprising a potentially critical new voting constituency in that crucial swing state.

These numbers probably won't excite you if you believe that young voters are without civic conscience, as many do. If that were true, I probably wouldn't want us to turn out either. That position seems reasonable on its face.

But wait! We are civically engaged, though as a collective, we haven't always equated voting with political or civic expression. Instead, we've manifested our civic-mindedness in other ways. For example, over half the deaths thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan are from our demographic. 70 percent of us volunteer on a regular or semi-regular basis. One third has decided that getting a college education is important enough to subsist on Top Ramen and frozen burritos for four years. And most of us are working our butts in the public and private sector. The distance between our current manifestations of civic-mindedness and the voting booth is far shorter than most people think. Because voting is often used as the sole metric by which people gauge political and civic engagement, pundits have overlooked the passion and savvy in us that we exhibit in the rest of our lives. That passion, given good reason, is easily translatable into votes.

Which brings us to this point. Both parties nominated the candidates most supported by young voters and most likely to bolster our turnout. Unlike elections past, young prospective voters this year don't need resentment of one candidate to incentivize them to turn out for another. There is no "lesser of two evils" this go-round. On each political side, young voters have good reasons to support their candidates. In either choice Obama or McCain, we see an opportunity to fundamentally affect the trajectory of our nation's future for the better.

This optimism inspires us in a way that nothing else can. Why? We were molded by the relative economic prosperity of the 90s, the end of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Internet boom and technology revolution that brought with them personal computers, iPods, and high-speed Internet. We were the Babies on Board bunch, shielded from the harshness of the world by our not infrequently coddling and protective helicopter parents. This environmental positivity is at the heart of our positive world view, to which broadly themed inspiring messages of "change" or "reform" resonate, both of which have been adopted by the Obama and McCain campaigns.

There are also dozens of organizations concertedly registering young voters, the best known of which, MTV's Rock the Vote, has signed up almost 2 million new ballot-casters so far this election cycle. They've been able to do this in part thanks to technological advances. Technology in politics is catching up with our desire and ability to use it and there's been another important role served by it this election. It has allowed us to make and encouraged candidates to seek small donations via the internet. As poor, starving college students and workplace neophytes, we can give $5 where we are unable to contribute $2,000. What happens once we buy into a campaign, as with any capitalistic enterprise, we take ownership of it, which in-turn makes it more likely that we actually turn out for that candidate. We have a stake in the campaign, which reduces registration-turnout gap, a problem in the '04 election.

If you've started to accept the premise that young voters will turn out in record numbers, you might be asking yourself why should I care. Fair enough. The answer is part is this, regardless of political inclination, we all should. Why? In 2004, John Kerry carried only one age-demographic, 18- to 29-year-olds. He did so by almost 13 points. That support alone was enough to keep the election fairly close.

More relevantly, according to a USA Today/MTV/Gallup poll that came out last week, Obama has a 29 point lead among 18- to 29-year-olds. If this poll, and others like it, which yield similar results, hold true, and if young voters turn out in percentages close to 60, which many young voter wonks (including me) are predicting, Obama could net 7 million votes among this age group, more than enough to put him over-the-top in an otherwise close election, especially, because many of the critical swing states have large young voter populations. Democrat or Republican, how young voters think and how we vote will affect your lives in profound ways.

I'd look at the prospective turnout of young voters in two weeks this way. Because we're facing the most angst-inducing economic clime since the Great Depression, you're probably wondering where to put your money. Where is the arbitrage potential? I'm no Ali Velshi from CNN, but if I were, my recommendation would be this: take all your money out of the stock market, hop a red eye to Vegas, take a shot of tequila at the airport, flag a taxi to a casino, take another shot of tequila, and put all your bling on this bet - that young voters will turn out at record levels this year. Seems quixotic, I know. But you'll get good odds, and the preliminary anecdotal and material evidence suggests it's a good bet.

Filed under: Raw Politics • Rob Grabow • Voting • youth vote
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Brad

    I find it fascinating that the Dems can be critical of the $ 150K wardrobe yet no one brings up how Obama is buying the election with what must be approaching a Billion dollars with a capital B.

    Candidates should have the same amount of funds to run their campaign to be fair. If Obama was for the people, he should be giving the money he has received over and above what McCain has brought in and turn it over to charities or the Social Security fund.

    Also, who is doing the job (Senators, Governors, etc.) of these candidates running for office while they are on the campaign trail for 2+ years???

    October 24, 2008 at 1:17 am |
  2. Phyllis from Canada

    Don't underestimate the young vote! My own child was eligible to vote for the first time in Canada's recent election; and he came with me to the polling station after asking all the right questions; and then placed his vote for the winning candidate in our area. As a parent, I encouraged him to do the right thing rather than think his vote wasn't important; and he did! Just some food for thought...

    October 24, 2008 at 12:04 am |
  3. Rachel

    I think it's a lot easier to be a pessimist.

    I'm 23 and voting for change, peace and a return to our humanitarian role in the world.

    October 23, 2008 at 11:44 pm |
  4. Susan in NC

    Young voters are gonna BARACK THE VOTE '08!

    October 23, 2008 at 9:10 pm |
  5. Marla DaVee

    Unfortunately, I am not as optomistic about young voter turnout as my friend Rob. I do believe that more young voters will turn out this election, but I believe any increase in the number we see will be within the traditional margin of error for voters in all demographics.

    In heated elections, I do believe there is more chatter about the candidates and about their histories. Youtube videos and political jokes fly around the digital world with whilwind speed. But when it comes down to November 4th, something always comes up.

    "Well, I was on my way down to the polls and I realized that if I waited in line, I'd be late for class, so I decided to go afterwards. But when the class ended, my friends asked me to go with them to check out this new movie, and . . . well it's cool, Obama/McCain won anyway and if Obama/McCain lost, my vote really wouldn't have changed anything anyway."

    And the situation I described is not simply voter apathy. It's become intwined in our culture. I contend that it is no different from the mortgage crisis. It is not only predatory lenders that have sent 1 of 91 Nevadans into foreclosure, it is also overly ambitious buyers who don't do their research, who don't balance their budget, and when it comes down to making tough decisions, the easiest one is the one most taken...."and that has made all the difference."

    October 23, 2008 at 8:07 pm |
  6. Rose from Muscoy


    Don't have faith, well I bet you that Senator Obama will be the next President because of the young votes.
    You will eat your own WORDS!

    October 23, 2008 at 8:06 pm |
  7. Jt from TN

    We (the younger voters) are more open to having a black President. We like Obbama and he's goty a plan to help young folks get their adult lives started. It's hard to get started if you're coming out of school to an economy not fit for even the experienced person who's been out of school for years.

    October 23, 2008 at 7:49 pm |
  8. Kitty, Canada

    I hope all young people come out and vote for Obama – if not just to give hope to the rest of the free world but also to shut some GOP fanatics up.

    Here in Canada there are a lot of hope the US public does the right thing and vote Obama as your next president. The last 8 years with Bush have been dreadful.

    October 23, 2008 at 7:48 pm |
  9. Marta Cereghino

    McCain used to be a respectable and honorable man. What happened to him? What made him become so rotten? The Barbie doll is not helping him either; she should work as the hostess of a Reality Show. Now, Senator Obama, now, now, talk about class!! He’s got it all, personality, looks, demeanor, , brains. We are going to look great in the eyes of the world again when he becomes our president. We will again regain the respect and admiration of the world for the great nation that we are.

    October 23, 2008 at 7:39 pm |
  10. Cindy

    Young voters have a penchant to sign up, go to rallies and what not but then when it comes down to actually voting they don't show up. So let's see if they will this time!


    October 23, 2008 at 5:15 pm |
  11. Annie Kate

    I hope the young voters turn out in great numbers and we see close to 80 -100 percent turnout from them; that would be better than any voter turnout I have ever seen. My daughter in college is voting for the first time and while I initially thought she was voting for her candidate because her peers were I soon was disabused of that notion during a discussion which showed she had done her homework and done it well on each candidate. I hope their enthusiasm lasts and that they will be as committed in subsequent elections as they are in this one.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    October 23, 2008 at 5:08 pm |
  12. JC- Los Angeles

    The Republicans deserve to lose this election simply because they had four years to prepare for Obama and the best they could do was John McCain.

    When Barack Obama spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2004, it was apparent he would run for President in 2008; the Republicans needed to prepare for battle that very night but failed to do so.

    It's hard to believe that within four years, the Republicans didn't have one candidate on the bench that they could match up against Obama; someone who might have been able to use McCain as VP.

    Lost chances and a lost election will surely smart.

    October 23, 2008 at 5:05 pm |