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The Youth Vote in Election 2012

Posted on November 21, 2012

Photo by Theresa Thompson on Flickr, used with Creative Commons license

Every election cycle, researchers and political analysts alike examine the impact of the youth vote (18-29 year olds) on election results. In the most recent election, President Obama earned 60% (and Governor Romney only 36%) of the youth vote. Overall, 50% of the 46 million eligible voters ages 18-29 cast a ballot, and in battleground states this number rose to 58%. In 2008, youth 18-29 years comprised 18-19% of the electorate, and although experts expected a decline, the 2012 turnout was nearly the same, at 19%. In terms of political affiliation, Millennials leaned communally left in 2012. Moreover, a Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) analysis demonstrates an alternate outcome if Romney had secured just half of this demographic in four critical states (OH, PA, VA, FL).

Young people proved more significant in this election than some strategists predicted, and campaigns developed more individualized outreach due to this group’s diverse views on social issues in particular. Data shows that 18-29 year olds support more liberal social issues: 66% in favor of same-sex marriage, 69% in support of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (the DREAM Act), and 55% in support of marijuana legalization. These compared to 31%, 47%, and 30%, respectively, among older adults (65+). Therefore, “one size fits all” campaigning targeted at older demographics often proves ineffective in appealing to young voters. In response, social media has emerged as an important campaign tool for attracting younger demographics. Political organizations use the Internet to inform and mobilize young voters, and social media now plays a key role in engaging youth in the political process.

Analysts suggest that Democrats triumphed in the past election among youth voters because the party better understood the significant electoral impact, important motivations and issues, and communication preferences of this demographic. CIRCLE identifies three basic strategies for increasing the youth vote:

  • Registration. For youth, registration can prove more difficult than voting itself, so programs that make registration more convenient work well for this age group. California, for instance, inaugurated an online voter registration system, which led to disproportionately high turnout of young voters (young adults comprise 23% of the state’s population, but made up 28% of the 2012 electorate). State voter laws, such as those that allow for Election Day registration, have also been effective in increasing young voter turnout.
  • Contact. Contact seems especially important for this demographic. In-person, personalized conversation is the most effective, while robo-calls are least productive. However, any contact is better than no contact, says CIRCLE analysis. Given the need for individual contact, bottom-up campaigning proves more effective with the younger audience. The GOP presidential campaign planned a top-down, calling network called ORCA that would use voter data to call those who had not yet voted on Election Day and ask them to vote. This contrasted with grassroots efforts of the Obama campaign, which emphasized personal contact and engagement to “get out the vote”.
  • Information. According to CIRCLE, telling these new voters how, when, and where to vote makes them much more likely to cast a ballot. Moreover, Millennials want facts so they can make their own decisions about the issues. While this pragmatism could be good for the country, political candidates must present young voters with more facts and science and less rhetoric if they hope to win young votes in future elections.

Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, recently said, “Young people are savvy. They are committed to this idea right now that participation is how they take back the power.” As the 18-29 year old demographic grows, future election campaigns from all parties must remain cognizant of the changing ways in which youth engage on issues and use technology to communicate with campaigns and each other.

The Schubert Center released an issue brief in October titled Civic Engagement and the Youth Vote, which detailed indicators of youth voting habits in this and prior elections. Important findings state that low income, non-college bound, and civically unengaged youth are less likely to vote. Download the brief here.