Turnout among young voters is increasing, but will it be enough to change the outcome?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 22, 2008 - If this presidential election follows the usual script, young voter turnout will be modest at best. There will be a flurry of students registering in the next few weeks but problems with getting them to the polls in November.
Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, isn't known for firing up the young vote. Even higher than usual turnout from the under-30 set might not be enough to propel Democratic nominee Barack Obama -- the candidate whose presidential bid may hinge on that demographic -- to a victory in Missouri.
But walk onto a college campus or into a political meeting of 20-somethings these days and you'll hear a drumbeat of optimism that this year will be different. Young voter turnout will increase much like it has in recent national elections and not fall back into a decades-long slump. The spike could be enough to tip the race in some swing states. Youthful candidates on both tickets have energized young voters who are already tuned into this high-stakes election.
Rick Puig, president of the Young Democrats of Missouri, is confident that the time spent pursuing a goal of registering 75,000 new voters across the state will pay dividends for the Obama campaign.
"This is the single thing that must be done," said Puig, a student at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "If Obama wins, it will be because of first-time voter turnout."
McCain can likely win Missouri without winning the youth vote, but that's not stopping Lucas Presson from knocking on dorm room doors to talk up the Arizona senator. Presson, the president of Southeast Missouri State University's College Republicans chapter in Cape Girardeau, said much of the group's time between now and the state's early October registration deadline will be spent canvassing in the area around the college.
And he's not meeting with people empty-handed. Presson is armed with plenty of campaign literature as well as "Palin Power" T-shirt giveaways.
With the election six weeks away, the presidential hopefuls are making their final pitches to voters in battleground states across the country. Young voters here are listening, but the question remains: Will they come out on Election Day?
The Numbers Game
Both Presson and Puig will watch with interest as exit poll numbers and vote tallies are reported on Election Day. They are banking on the same enthusiasm that helped drive increases in young voter turnout in the 2004 presidential and 2006 midterm elections following steady declines since 1972, the first election in which 18-year-olds cast ballots.
An estimated 6.5 million people under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 presidential primaries and caucuses, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). CNN exit polls show that young voters preferred Obama by a large margin over Sen. Hillary Clinton, but they gave a slight edge to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee over McCain.
In states where data is available, the national youth turnout rose from 9 percent in the 2000 primaries to 17 percent in 2008, CIRCLE data show. In both Missouri and Illinois, the under-30 vote was greater in this year's primary contests than it was eight years ago, though the increase was more pronounced in Missouri, where, according to estimates, the turnout rate among 18-to-29-year-old eligible voters tripled from 7 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2008. A surge in young Democratic voters fueled the increase, according to the CIRCLE data.
Kenneth F. Warren, a professor of administrative law at St. Louis University and president of the Warren Poll, said he's skeptical of polls that show such a major jump in youth voting.
"There's no question the youth voter turnout has been much higher recently, and that's probably because of Obama," he said. "But when you're talking about a 300 percent increase in one state, and exit poll data from other states showing a 50 percent increase, that's a huge difference."
Warren said youth vote estimates can be misleading because they often rely on people reporting whether they went to the polls. Historically, around 50 percent of all eligible voters cast ballots on the first Tuesday in November. The youth vote is typically in the low-30 percent range, while turnout can be as high as 60 or 70 percent for the older demographic, he said.
"I'd expect the youth vote to be disappointing when push comes to shove on Election Day," Warren said. "I go by patterns, and I need to be shown that it's going to happen."
Terry Jones, a professor of political science and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said if Obama wins Missouri it will be a combination of high turnout among young and black voters, as well as a closer than expected margin of victory for McCain in Missouri's outlying areas.
Jones said he doesn't consider Missouri to be a bellwether state, in part because there aren't enough young voters to give Obama the spike he'd need to overcome McCain. According to a 2006 U.S. Census estimate, 9 percent (or roughly 571,000 people) of the state's eligible voters are between 18 and 25, compared with 13 percent (779,605) who are above 65.
Obama should get a plurality of the youth vote, both in Missouri and nationally, Warren said. But even if he wins that demographic by 5 to 10 percent in Missouri, the Illinois senator's expected loss among older voters will more than negate that advantage, he added.
And while the under-30 vote has risen in past elections, so too has turnout among older voters.
"If you look back at 2004, the share of the electorate didn't change," Jones said. "That's bad for Obama. He wants an electorate that's younger."
Still, some observers say the under-30 vote can play a role in determining the outcome.
"Democrats always do well when there's a big youth vote, and this year there's extra significance," said Jack Cardetti, a spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party. "We have a real chance to bring voters into the political process who haven't been there before."
Mike Lawrence, director of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's public policy institute, considers Missouri a tight race that could tip with an unprecedented turnout from any demographic.
In Lawrence's state, all signs point to an Obama landslide. Illinois, where Obama is the junior senator, saw a slight increase in young voter turnout from 2000 to 2004, according to CIRCLE data. Lawrence expects the increase to be substantial this time around.
About the only question left is whether Democrats in Illinois' legislative races can take advantage of the young voter turnout.
"It remains to be seen just how long Obama's coattail is," Lawrence said.
Registration vs. Turnout
Over the summer, University of Missouri senior Craig Stevenson got a sense of first-time voter interest in this presidential election. More than 800 soon-to-be freshmen visiting campus for orientation registered during a voter drive, said Stevenson, chairman of the board of directors for the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, which lobbies on behalf of students in the system.
Stevenson said that after next month's statewide registration deadline, members of his group will begin to follow up with the newly registered to make sure they have information about where to vote and how to get there.
There's typically a correlation between increased voter registration and turnout in election years, and recent polls show that more than three-quarters of voters under 30 say they are likely to vote in November. But campus political leaders know that young voter follow through can't be taken for granted.
"The hype is that Obama will bring all these new voters into the fold," said Presson, the Southeast Missouri student. "I'm not sold on the fact that there will be a swarm of new voters."
Jordan Aibel, speaker of the Student Union Senate at Washington University, said he expects his campus to tilt toward Obama. He's helping to organize voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts -- including buses to polling places on Election Day -- through the campus' nonpartisan Gephardt Institute for Public Service.
The goal is to identify first-time voters, whether they are registering in their home state or in Missouri. Aibel said he's been pleased with the level of election interest on campus and "pleasantly surprised" with the political acumen of those who have registered.
"The first thing we ask is where you are planning to vote," he said. "Most students know the political situation in their home state, and if it's one that's considered in the bag for one candidate, they say, 'I want to vote here because theoretically my vote could count more.' "
Aibel said one of his objectives is to caution students that the university's housing is located across several polling districts, and if they switch apartments they also have to change their registration address or risk being turned away at the polls.
Puig, the Young Democrats president, said confusion about where to vote near campus and how to take part in absentee voting in other states often inhibits young people from following through on plans to vote. He said students in particular often get conflicting messages about the consequences of registering in Missouri.
"They're worried that they may lose dependency status and access to school health care plans if they vote here," he said. "It's frightening to hear the misinformation they've been given."
But Warren, the SLU professor, said his research shows that lack of motivation -- not institutional barriers -- is the primary reason young people don't vote.
Or, as SIU's Lawrence puts it: "I'm not sure if (young people) will follow through. The enthusiasm is there now, but we won't know for sure whether it has an impact on the election for several weeks."
Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis.