The youth vote: It has been eagerly courted by politicians for years, and with just weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, 2008 is set to prove no different.
But while a number of candidates continue to devote plenty of time and resources to cultivating strong support from youth voters, it remains unclear whether such backing is a valuable ingredient in the recipe for electoral success.
Past experience suggests it could be. Though both Sen. John F. Kerry and President George W. Bush attempted to drive up the youth vote, according to the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, voting by eligible Americans under the age of 30 increased by only 9 percent in 2004. For Kerry, the failure of more young Americans to vote was decidedly unhelpful.
According to CNN's exit polls, 56 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters favored Kerry. Had more turned out, he might have won.
Still, youth voting and efforts by the Democratic Party to reach out to younger voters did play a key role in handing Congress to Democrats in 2006.
According to a June 2007 report by the New Politics Institute, 18- to 29-year-old voters (members of the “millennial generation”) supported Democrats by a 22-point margin last year. Moreover, the influence of younger voters making up the millennial generation looks likely to prove stronger than that of previous generations in their youth, partly because of its size.
According to NPI, there are more millennials than baby boomers — and what’s more, they’re more politically engaged than other generations. UCLA’s 2006 American Freshmen survey showed that more freshmen (34 percent) had discussed politics frequently as high school seniors than at any time in the 40-year history of the survey.
So, on numerous counts, it’s reasonable to expect more youth involvement in politics heading into 2008 — though whether it will be enough to affect the outcome of the races for either the Democratic or the Republican nomination remains in question.
Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama is hoping it will. Last month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s adviser, Mandy Grunwald, mocked a crowd of his backers in Iowa, telling Politico that they looked not like caucus-goers but “look like they are 18” and “look like Facebook.”
She had a point. Obama boasts more than 170,000 friends on the youth-dominated social networking site and 200,000 at its rival, MySpace.
However, that’s something Obama campaign manager David Plouffe no doubt sees as a positive. After all, under Plouffe’s guidance, Team Obama has been “heavily focused” on turning out young voters.
The campaign’s New Hampshire state director, Matt Rodriguez, has been pushing for students to register, vote in the state and encourage their friends to do the same, believing that capturing an extra 2,000 to 3,000 student votes could earn Obama significantly more of the vote in the Granite State.
Obama’s Web team has included on the candidate’s website a “Students for Obama” page. And Hillary Clinton’s website has www.hillblazers.com, targeting young voters.
But if Obama is most heavily and publicly courting the youth vote among Democrats, he’s not the only one. Former Sen. John Edwards’ website also features a page dedicated to “Young America.”
Even Clinton has launched a “Students for Hillary” drive, and according to a recent nationwide poll from Rock the Vote, WWE’s Smackdown Your Vote! and Sacred Heart University, she has the support of 54 percent of 18- to 30-year-old Democrats (in contrast with Obama’s 24 percent). Grunwald’s jibes aside, young voters are an important constituency for Clinton — and one she is keen to exploit.
The same appears to be true of Republican former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The same poll that puts Clinton ahead with young Democrats shows Giuliani garnering the support of 32 percent of 18- to 30-year-old Republicans — 12 percent more than his nearest rival.
Another poll, conducted in November for the University of New Hampshire, showed a similar trend in the crucial early-primary state. Despite former Gov. Mitt Romney leading there overall, according to that survey, Giuliani held an 8 point lead among Republicans ages 18 to 34 — proving that youth represents a key voting bloc for his campaign.
That Giuliani, the most socially liberal Republican, should be the youth favorite among the Republican field is little surprise, of course.
A 2007 Pew survey showed that 18- to 29-year-olds are comparatively socially liberal, with 56 percent favoring allowing gay marriage — like just 37 percent of the American public overall.
Still, the big question remains for him, as it does for Obama: Can younger voters be relied on to deliver that little bit of extra support needed to hand him the nomination of his party?
Undoubtedly, both candidates will be hoping so. But, as they say, hope springs eternal — and presidential candidates would be well-advised not to count on America’s youth saving the day quite yet.