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.