Defying Expectations, Half of Young Voters Cast Ballots, 60% for Obama

In some battleground states, tallies show, their ballots were decisive factors in the president's victory

Mark Duncan, AP Images

Young people, who were widely reported to be less engaged in the 2012 elections than they had been in 2008, actually voted in similar proportions in both years, and in 2012 they formed a larger percentage of the electorate.
November 07, 2012

Despite expectations that young voters wouldn't turn out for this year's election, they participated at nearly as high a rate as in 2008 and still supported President Obama decisively, but somewhat less so. Sixty percent of young people voted for him, compared with 66 percent four years ago.

About half of eligible voters age 18 to 29 cast ballots, according to initial tallies by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. More precise number crunching may bump up the youth-turnout rate, now 49 percent, to 51 percent, said the center, which is known as Circle. Four years ago, it adjusted an early estimate of 48 percent to 52 percent of young voters.

Turnout in that bracket, then, seems to have remained relatively steady despite overall national declines of up to four percentage points, to a rate of about 58 percent, since the last presidential election. This year young people represented 19 percent of all voters, an increase of one percentage point over 2008.

Among advocates and observers of young voters, turnout is evidence of engagement, as well as electoral influence.

"Confounding almost all predictions, the youth vote held up in 2012 and yet again was the deciding factor," Peter Levine, director of Circle, said in a written statement. In a news conference on Wednesday with Rock the Vote, he proclaimed that strong turnout rates were here to stay: "This is a new normal, where about half of the millennial generation is voting."

That argument defies the generation's longstanding reputation, which Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, sought to dispel.

"We can put those rumors of apathy to bed," she said. "This voting block can no longer be an afterthought to any political party or campaign."

Beyond Expectations

In fact, turnout among the youngest voters has increased markedly since 1996, when only 37 percent cast ballots. In the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, participation rose to 41 and then 48 percent. But even in 2008, it failed to match the rate of 55 percent in 1972, in the first presidential election after the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

This year, even after a campaign in which college affordability became a major issue, experts doubted whether young people would vote. Just weeks ago, a poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics showed that young Americans were less enthusiastic about voting and more skeptical of the political process than they had been four years ago. Only 48 percent said they were "definitely likely" to vote, compared with 66 percent in 2008.

Last month Circle asked young people if they knew their states' voter-registration deadlines, early-voting rules, and identification requirements. No more than 43 percent got any of the three questions right, said Mr. Levine.

But still, they voted, about 22 million of them, despite long lines and problems at polling places. Even if they were confused, and less enthusiastic, they were persistent, Mr. Levine said. "A lot of them figured it out in some way." He attributed the higher-than-expected turnout, in part, to advocacy groups' finely tuned tactics.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups, active on college campuses nationally, have come to rely on technology and peer-to-peer contact, among other strategies, said Sujatha Jahagirdar, the organization's political director.

"There's no magic formula," she said. "There's just old-fashioned, on-the-ground pavement pounding."

Both presidential candidates appealed to young voters, using campaign appearances and the debates to discuss the cost of college, the unemployment rate for recent graduates, and the burden of student-loan debt. Mr. Obama organized Student Summits on campuses across the country, and Mitt Romney appeared at rallies, including one at George Mason University on Monday.

The Obama campaign deserves particular credit for the youth turnout, said John Della Volpe, polling director of Harvard's institute. "There's no question that young people had not been nearly as engaged by almost every measure during this campaign cycle relative to four years ago," he said. "The Obama grass-roots and mobilization efforts mitigated that."

Choosing Swing States

Young people voted overwhelmingly Democratic, with 60 percent for Mr. Obama and 37 percent for Mr. Romney. But the president clearly lost ground over the past four years. In the 2008 election, 66 percent of young voters picked him, as 32 percent did John McCain.

As in 2008, the edge young voters gave to Mr. Obama proved decisive in some states. According to Circle, in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, if young people had not voted or if only half of them had supported the president, Mr. Romney would have won.

Exit polls published by CNN showed that in some of those states, young people favored Mr. Obama even more than they had four years ago. In Florida, for instance, 66 percent of young people voted for the president, compared with 61 percent in 2008. In Ohio, support for Mr. Obama was up to 63 percent, from 61 percent.

In other states, however, young voters favored the president significantly less, a reflection perhaps of broader trends in those states. In Indiana, his support declined to 46 percent, from 63 percent, and in North Carolina to 67 percent, from 74 percent. Both states went for Mr. Obama in 2008 but for Mr. Romney in 2012.

Many students attending college away from home made strategic choices about where to vote this year.

Ellen Scully, a senior at Colorado College from Rocky Hill, Conn., decided to register to vote in Colorado, a swing state, instead of Connecticut, firmly in the Obama camp. Supporting Mr. Romney, she wanted to try to turn the state red.

She had misgivings about a choice most people didn't have: "I don't necessarily think that I should have been able to do that," she said. But she could, so she did.

Still, Ms. Scully opted not to vote for "the local stuff," she said. "I felt guilty taking that vote from someone who is actually impacted."

Sofi Cullen, a first-year student at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pa., opted to register there rather than in California, where she's from. It was a hard choice, she said, as she wanted to vote against the death penalty and for a tax increase to support education in her home state.

But supporting Mr. Obama in a swing state, she decided, mattered more. Also, she reasoned, "my voice deserves to be heard here now, because this is where I live."

Obstacles and Lines

In this election, as in many before it, students faced obstacles to voting, some from opposition to the idea that they can register where they are enrolled in college.

To protect students' right to vote, the Fair Elections Legal Network kicked off a Campus Vote Project last February. As part of the project, advocates trained election officials on registering students to vote and tried to inform students about the voting process. In North Carolina, the project helped college administrators provide students with proof of residency; in Ohio, it encouraged private colleges to do so by giving students zero-balance utility bills.

Still, problems arose. According to the Student PIRGs, students in certain dormitories at Temple University weren't on the rolls at their designated polling place in Philadelphia and had to use provisional ballots. At Pittsburg State University, in Kansas, students reportedly encountered similar problems.

On campuses in Iowa and Ohio, particularly at Ohio State University, lines were reportedly long. But in various places, students tried to entertain their waiting classmates. At Indiana University, volunteers blew bubbles and painted faces, said Ms. Jahagirdar, of the Student PIRGs. At Rutgers University, they passed out fake mustaches printed with the words "I voted."

But long waits shouldn't be part of voting, said Ms. Smith, of Rock the Vote. This generation's considerable participation has been established, she said. The next push, she pledged, will be to update systems to accommodate it.