On Election Day, Yale voters were everywhere: sticking on “I voted” stickers, spilling out of the Afro-American Cultural Center to phonebank for Sen. Barack Obama, watching election returns and rallying on Old Campus. But they were just a small part of the record-breaking mass of young people who turned out to send Obama to the Oval Office.
At least 2.2 million more young voters cast ballots this year than in 2004, according to preliminary numbers released by voter research groups yesterday. That number represents a 2.7 percent increase over the 2004 participation of eligible voters ages 18 to 29, making it a historic and record-breaking turnout, youth vote leaders said.
In total, between 21.6 and 23.9 million young Americans voted, or about half of eligible young voters, Declare Yourself, a national nonprofit organization that encourages young people to vote, wrote in a press release yesterday.
But more telling was the proportion of young voters who voted for Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, who had several staff and a budget specifically dedicated to targeting young people. About two-thirds of the young people voted for the president-elect — the highest level of youth support for a presidential candidate since tracking of that demographic began in the 1970s, researchers at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement announced. By contrast, 32 percent favored Sen. John McCain, who only hired one youth director and did not provide a dedicated budget, said Jane Fleming Kleeb, executive director of the Young Voter PAC.
“We’re seeing a resurgence [in voter turnout] here, which is good for American democracy,” CIRCLE research associate Karlo Barrios Marcelo said. Turnout among young voters has consistently increased over the past three election cycles, Marcelo said, marking a strong trend that will probably continue: “We’ve never really seen any kind of back-to-back increase before.”
Marcelo cautioned that because of the large number of still-uncounted absentee ballots cast in this election, the CIRCLE numbers may change slightly.
Leaders of both partisan and non-partisan youth vote groups said that Obama’s campaign had made a concerted — and unprecedented — effort to not only court young people’s votes, but also to mobilize them in support of the candidate.
Obama’s 34-point margin over McCain among young voters is the largest margin that demographic has given to a president since 18-year-olds were first allowed to vote in 1972, said Kleeb.
“That [margin] is amazing, and the campaign should be very proud,” Kleeb said.
The campaign’s efforts were certainly apparent on campus yesterday, when some Elis skipped class to canvass in swing states and volunteered hours phonebanking.
“In the past, the sense was that young people were dabblers in [politics], that they were not committed, and in turn the campaigns didn’t ask much of them,” said Marc Morgenstern ’76, executive director of Declare Yourself. “What we see now is that young people just wanted to be asked.”
The president-elect acknowledged the power of the youth vote in his victory speech last night, eliciting cheers and clapping from hundreds of Yalies watching on their televisions. Speaking from Grant Park in Chicago, Obama said his campaign “grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy, who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep.”
Morgenstern said the Obama campaign targeted youth in several unprecedented ways, enlisting them for get out the vote campaigns and registration efforts as well as phonebanking in their hometowns and on college campuses.
“You put a few college students together in a room with their cell phones, and you have a phone bank,” Morgenstern said. “That’s what the Obama campaign discovered.” But, he was quick to add, Obama’s staff was careful to keep their eager young volunteers disciplined, giving them specific talking points and instructions.
“The level of organization was amazing,” he said. “You could look back at 2000 or 2004, and young people were just not harnessed the way they were this time around.”
Also, he added, the campaign was “not shy” about asking them for small, affordable donations of $5 to $20, while previous candidates have dismissed young people as potential donors.
Campaign strategists on both sides have lauded Obama’s skillful use of technology and the Internet to engage voters. Innovative online videos and social networking on sites such as Facebook.com, as well as e-mails and text messaging, were the most effective techniques for Obama and nonpartisan get-out-the-vote groups, Morgenstern and Kleeb both said.
As inspiring as Obama was to millions of so-called “millenials,” however, the historic turnout was also a result of the weakening economy and increasing civic engagement, they added.
“The millenials are more civically engaged,” Kleeb said. “They see government as part of the solution.”
According to a separate poll conducted by Declare Yourself, anxieties about the economy — especially getting a job and planning retirement — dwarfed all other issues for young voters, though 38 percent of them also cited McCain’s negative campaigning as a turnoff.
Still, the jubilation on campus Tuesday seemed a testament to the level of excitement Obama inspired among young voters, college students especially.
“So it wasn’t just an Obama factor, but Obama pushed [the turnout] into a realm that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” Kleeb said.
Prior to this election, former president Ronald Reagan and Sen. John Kerry were the most successful candidates at earning the youth vote, with margins of 10 percent over their opponents.