Will 2008's Surge In Young Voters Continue In 2012?

Apr 3, 2012
Originally published on April 3, 2012 11:05 pm

Historically, young people have been much less likely to vote than older Americans.

That trend has started to change in the past few presidential election cycles, especially in 2008, when a census report found that 49 percent of those ages 18 to 24 who were eligible to vote participated in the presidential election.

While still significantly lower than the overall voter participation rate of 64 percent, the youngest demographic was the only age group to show a statistically significant jump in 2008 participation, the census reported.

But will the trend continue this year? And if so, who benefits?

"We see signs in early polling that young people are not as engaged now as they were in the same time four years ago," says Scott Keeter, an analyst at the Pew Research Center.

Briana Drayton, 18, a student at the University of Maryland, seems to agree.

"I'm just not very into politics and I think that it would require a lot more research and looking into issues that I don't think that I have the passion for," says Drayton. "So I wouldn't want to vote and, like, not be completely informed."

But another Maryland student, Caroline Carlson, 19, attended a recent campus rally for presidential candidate Ron Paul and called the rally "an enlightening experience."

Whom young voters support in 2012 could be an important factor in the outcome of the presidential race.

Four years ago, about two-thirds of voters under age 30 backed Democrat Barack Obama, according to exit polls from CNN.

"The recession has been very, very tough on young people in particular," says Keeter. "People entering the job market in [these] last four years have had a very hard time getting work and getting good work — and that has tended to dampen their enthusiasm for Barack Obama and for the Democrats in general."

Obama's campaign and that of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney are eager to recruit young voters.

Adviser Lanhee Chen says Romney plans to promote his economic message on college campuses nationwide. "This is really gonna resonate with younger Americans because they've really been hit hard by the difficulty that we've seen in the economy during President Obama's term," says Chen.

The Obama campaign is reminding young voters about the president's health care law and how it helps young people, as well as Obama's repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which means that gay service members now can serve openly.

"It is really about educating young people on what the president has done for them over the last four years," says Valeisha Butterfield-Jones, the Obama campaign's national youth vote director.

Pew's Keeter points out that Obama could have won without the youth vote in 2008.

"That was an election that he won by a relatively comfortable margin. Everybody thinks, despite the early polling right now that shows [Obama] with a reasonably good-sized lead, that this is going to be a very close election," says Keeter.

And in a close election, Keeter says, everybody's vote matters.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Well, young people tend to be less engaged in politics than their elders, they say. But in the last few election cycles, that trend has started to change. The big jump came from 2000 to 2004. And 2008 saw the highest turnout rate among younger voters in many years.

NPR's Teresa Tomassoni stopped by the University of Maryland's College Park campus to see if that might continue in this election cycle.

TERESA TOMASSONI, BYLINE: The line of students waiting to hear Texas Congressman Ron Paul speak at the Ritchie Coliseum wrapped around several blocks. Twenty-year-old Derrick Zumstein(ph) stood about halfway down the line. He's a member of the student group, College Republicans.

DERRICK ZUMSTEIN: I'm interested in what Ron Paul has to say, whether I support it or not, is moot.

TOMASSONI: Soon after Zumstein finally passed through the doors to the packed gymnasium, the audience started cheering.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

TOMASSONI: They shouted President Paul, stomping their feet and waving signs that read: End the War and End the Fed. Nineteen-year-old Caroline Carlson was part of the excited crowd.

CAROLINE CARLSON: I think it's, you know, kind of like an enlightening experience to kind of come to this event and see what they have to say and what their views on issues are.

TOMASSONI: But according to Scott Keeter, an analyst at the Pew Research Center, most young people do not have such a sustained interest in the presidential election, at least not compared to 2008.

SCOTT KEETER: We see signs in early polling that young people are not as engaged now as they were at this same time four years ago.

TOMASSONI: Eighteen-year-old Briana Drayton's one of the less engaged. She says she wants nothing to do with the election.

BRIANA DRAYTON: I'm just not very into politics. And I think that, like, it would require a lot more research and, like, looking into issues that I don't think I have the passion for, so I wouldn't want to vote and, like, not be completely informed.

TOMASSONI: Even if she tried to inform herself, she says...

DRAYTON: I would look into it for like 10 minutes and then be bored and move on to Facebook or something.

TOMASSONI: Keeter says it's too early to know for sure how many young people will show up to the polls in November. U.S. Census data shows that about 50 percent of eligible young voters turned out in 2008, about two-thirds of them to vote for Barack Obama. But, as Keeter says, a lot's happened since 2008 and he thinks it's likely not as many young people will vote this year.

KEETER: The recession has been very, very tough on young people in particular, sort of people entering the job market in this last four years have had a very hard time, you know, getting work and getting good work. And that has tended to dampen their enthusiasm for Barack Obama and for the Democrats in general.

TOMASSONI: It's left some students, like University of Maryland freshman Alexa Lardiary(ph) confused.

ALEXA LARDIARY: When you hear someone who's a Democrat, like, give you their side of the story, you're like, oh, that makes perfect sense. But then when you hear a Republican, like, do the same thing, you're like, oh, wait, that makes perfect sense, too. So, it is a little confusing.

TOMASSONI: Lardiary is a registered Democrat, but she says she probably won't cast a ballot in the fall. The campaigns of Mitt Romney and President Obama are eager to recruit young voters. Romney adviser Lanhee Chen says Governor Romney plans to promote his economic message on campuses across the country.

LANHEE CHEN: This is really going to resonate with younger Americans because they've really been hit hard by the difficulty that we've seen the economy during President Obama's term.

TOMASSONI: But the Obama campaign is trying to remind young people about some of the president's accomplishments thus far, including the Affordable Care Act and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

VALEISHA BUTTERFIELD-JONES: It is really about educating young people on what the president has done for them over the last four years.

TOMASSONI: That's the Obama campaign's national youth vote director, Valeisha Butterfield-Jones. She said the campaign is currently wrapping up a national college tour in key swing states, states that may matter even more in this election. Pew's Scott Keeter points out that President Obama could have won without the youth vote in 2008.

KEETER: But that was an election that he won by a relatively comfortable margin. Everybody thinks, despite the early polling right now that shows him with a reasonably good-sized lead, that this is going to be a very close election.

TOMASSONI: And in a close election, Keeter says, everybody's vote matters.

Teresa Tomassoni, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.