Monday, November 26, 2012

2012 Youth Vote: Anomaly or permanent Democratic voting bloc?


In 2008, election watchers were surprised when voters under age 30 turned out in record breaking numbers to support Barack Obama's first presidential bid (by record breaking margins, as well). But they were down right aghast when Team Obama, despite an abundance of polling data indicating youth enthusiasm was down, managed to increase turnout amongst this historically unreliable voting block. But is this voting block on a consistent rise in the same way white voters have been on a consistent decline? Are 18-29-year-olds a permanent constituency of the Democrats, or does history suggest there's a path for GOP inroads?

18-29 yr-old voting patters, 1976-2012

Looking at the chart, there appears to be good and bad news for the Republicans. The good news is that the 25-35 pt leads Democrats have enjoyed amongst 18-29 yr-olds the last two presidential cycles stand out as the exception rather than the norm. Excluding 2012 and 2008, Democrats have averaged a 3 point advantage among voters under 30. In fact, during the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, the GOP led among this group. A Republican optimist would look at these numbers and argue that with more targeted messaging and policies, and WITHOUT a young, charismatic minority Democratic opponent, Republicans could at LEAST get Democrats back down to John Kerry's number's with youngsters (54%). But would that have been enough for Romney to overtake Obama in 2012? The below table explores what the election results would have looked like had Romney obtained 45% of the vote among 18-29 yr-olds, as George W. Bush did in 2004. All other margins among the various age groups stay the same:

2012 results had Romney done as well as George W. Bush in 2004 w/ 18-29 year-olds

The above table points out that Republicans would have had to limit the Democrats margin of victory with 18-29 yr-olds to under ten points if they wanted to TIE President Obama. Remember, Romney lost that age group by 23 points, which is why he currently trails in the 2012 national popular vote 50.9 - 47.4%. So as you can see, even an optimist has to admit the GOP has their work cut out for them in cutting the Democrats margin with young voters to an amount where they can become competitive overall.

About that "bad news" . . . While the GOP may be justified in believing Obama's 30 pt winning margins among younger voters are an anomaly, they would be mistaken to cling to the hope of a drop in youth turnout in the future, as they did in 2012. As the 1st chart noted,  high youth voter turnout is no anomaly. In fact, for all the pundits scratching their heads at 19% youth turnout in 2012, what would they have thought had it returned to 22%, as it was in 1992 (much less its historical high of 32% from 1976, shortly after the passage of the 26th Amendment)? The three election cycles where youth turnout dipped below 18% (1996-2004) stand out as more of an exception to the rule when examining exit poll data over the last 36 years. Does this mean Republicans HAVE to drastically improve with voters under the age of 30? No. They could seek to maximize their vote with the three remaining age groups. But if the 2012 election taught us anything, it's that putting all your eggs in one basket can backfire.

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