The Myth of the Youth Vote

On a politically active and overwhelmingly liberal college campus such as Harvard, Barack Obama’s victory looks like a triumph for the youth vote. The impressive turnout to campus returns-watching events seemed the logical culmination of months of informal debate among students about the impending election and excitement surrounding absentee voting. The chants of “Yes, we can!” that erupted upon announcement of Obama’s election made clear that students saw Obama as their candidate. All of this suggested that the youth vote had actually mattered in a presidential election.

Statistics, however, don’t back up that understanding.  AnaMaria Arumi, director of the exit poll desk for NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo, re-ran the exit polling data as if no one under the age of 30 had voted.  In that scenario, the only states that would have shifted to the red column were Indiana and North Carolina.  Needless to say, Obama would still have been elected by a significant margin, despite the fact that Obama’s widest victory came in the demographic of voters under 30 years of age. In fact, MSNBC reported that voters aged 18-24 comprised 10 percent of all American voters, only a one percent increase from 2004, though voter turnout more broadly was palpably higher in this election cycle.

Despite the youth vote’s ostensible lack of impact, I still believe that the myth that the youth vote had an outsized role in this election is important to perpetuate. Studies have repeatedly shown that early voting patterns determine later patterns; if the idea that the youth vote can have an impact takes root, more young people are likely to start voting earlier. America will never achieve 100 percent voter turnout, but if the importance of voting is entrenched in the minds of young people from the first election they can vote in, they are more likely to be active participants in the political process later in life.

American youth also have general interests that may differ from the broader population.  Simply by virtue of their age, young people tend to be inclined to issues that can influence America and the world beyond the immediate future, such as climate change. Indeed, in an October poll cited in the Washington Independent, 64 percent of voters under age 30 said the environment is a “very important” issue, compared to 55 percent of older voters. If the youth vote is expected to turn out, politicians will arguably be more likely to consider such issues in their platforms, securing an America that will be inherited by today’s young voters.

Even if the youth vote didn’t elect Obama, it is certainly worthwhile for American youth to be involved in the political process. And if this necessitates the perpetuation of Obama’s identification with young people, so be it. We’ll begin to see a more politically active voting population beyond the under 30-demographic in later election cycles and, perhaps, witness an adjustment of policy agendas to include longer-range issues that matter across generations.

Zoey Orol, World Editor

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