By Aaron Blake - 04/19/07 06:31 PM EDT
The youth vote, often a source of frustration to those who seek to increase turnout among young people, is shaping up to be a key demographic, with its size and participation levels on the upswing. Just about every campaign is targeting youth, often through new media, and some campaigns are hiring youth-oriented teams of staffers.
The high point of the last 30 years came in 1992, when 48.6 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 52 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted. Those numbers appear to be within reach for the 2008 cycle.
The statistics pale when compared to turnout numbers for older segments of the population, which vote at a rate of about two-thirds in presidential years. Skeptics note that older voters will be a more dependable voting group throughout the foreseeable future.
Still, turnout among young voters is growing faster than it has among older voters in recent years, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland. What’s more, the Harvard poll notes that 40 percent of young people align with neither major party, meaning there are plenty of votes to be won.
“The level of interest that we’re seeing from presidential campaigns is unprecedented,” said Kathleen Barr, research and media director of the Youth Voter Strategies project at The George Washington University. “We didn’t see interest this early in ’04, and definitely not in ’06. And the sheer size of the young adult population indicates it’s likely to make a major impact.”
According to the Harvard survey, which was conducted online with nearly 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds participating, Obama and Giuliani are the early beneficiaries.
Obama leads with 35 percent among 18- to 24-year-old voters who likely will vote Democratic in 2008, followed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) at 28 percent and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) at 9 percent. The top two spots are flipped in polls of the general population, with Clinton holding a lead over Obama.
On the Republican side, the youth vote reflects the general population. Giuliani has the support of 31 percent, while Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is second with 18 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is third with 8 percent.
Prospective candidates who have polled high but are not in the race — including former Vice President Al Gore (D), former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — were not included in the poll.
Approaches to youth voting and participation vary, though most campaigns have employed some new-media strategy geared toward young people, especially on social-networking websites. Former Rock the Vote organizer Hans Riemer is leading Obama’s youth-vote operation with one deputy. Romney offered students a commission on money raised for his campaign.
The Harvard study reports that 42 percent of respondents said that they definitely will vote in a primary or caucus, and 61 percent said they definitely will vote in the general election.
Intend-to-vote figures tend to be higher than actual voting figures, but a recent Pew Research Center study showed significant increases in political and national-affairs awareness among young people in the last eight years.
Most numbers in the Harvard poll were markedly similar between college-educated young voters and those who did not attend college.
The most pressing foreign-policy issue for young voters was stabilizing Iraq (24 percent), but “dealing with the genocide in Darfur” came in a surprising second at 17 percent, above “fighting the war on terrorism” and addressing issues in China, Iran and North Korea. Among the general population, Darfur polls at about 5 percent.
The polling director at the Institute of Politics, John Della Volpe, said candidates would be wise to address Darfur and pointed out that there are now more voters younger than 30 than 65 and older.
“This is the first election, frankly, where most presidential campaigns are taking this vote seriously,” Della Volpe said.