Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Youth Voter Turnout--Looking Back, Looking Forward

A friend of mine recently asked me the following: “Historically, younger voters (18-25?) have not bothered to vote, but they did participate in the Obama election.  Is that demographic planning on voting in this election?  Are they a block to reckon with, i.e. are politicians paying attention to them now?

I figured some other people might be interested in the answer so here goes:* 

According to the CIRCLE Foundation (the key resource on youth political engagement, turnout among young people was up 2% over 2004 and 9% over 4 years before (although they varied a ton by state). North Carolina is a particularly interesting case.  In 2006, we had the 41st highest youth voter turnout in the country, but we had a huge surge in this last election and had the 11th highest turnout (55% youth turnout) following the 2008 Presidential election. I can’t think of any other examples where a state has jumped that much in such a short period of time. 

On the one hand, the biggest predictor of whether you'll vote this time is whether you voted last time so simply getting young people to the polls should be a lot easier this time.  On the other hand, a lot of people think that this surge was an Obama surge and we'll go back to normal patterns in the midterm.  

So what signs do we have about this election?  Once again, we have two pieces of evidence to rely on to answer this question: polling and early voting.  The best polling data on this issue suggest that there’s a huge enthusiasm gap between young Democrats and Young Republicans.  Young Democrats are much less engaged in this election than they were in 2006, while Young Republicans are (not surprisingly) more engaged. Given that more young people are Democrats than Republicans, we might expect to see slightly lower youth turnout this time.  Here’s the money graph from the Pew report:

As for early voting, there is no evidence that the early voting population is any younger than it has been in previous years. In the 11th Congressional district, the average age of an early voter is 62.  Don’t tell my dad but this doesn’t sound too young to me. 

This last part of the question—whether young people are a block to reckon with—I’ll answer with a bit more informed opinion and fewer facts.  The bottom line is that I haven’t seen any evidence suggesting that politicians are more likely to target or listen to young people than they were prior to 2008.  A 2% increase in one election is great, but it's not exactly huge.  And we’re talking about 2% higher among a fairly small proportion of the electorate so the overall influence is not all that big.  You add to that that young voters are an inefficient group to reach (how many young people are actually registered in this district? How many have out of area cell phones?  How many answer the phone? How many have a good address on file with the board of elections?) and I don't think politicians will spend much more time and effort than they already do trying to reach young voters.

With that long of an answer, I doubt anyone will ask me any more questions.

*All of these data actually refer to people 18-29, which is the way most political scientists define “younger voters.”

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