The Message of the Youth Vote

Young adults, who seem to vote in fewer and fewer numbers in recent years, reversed course significantly in the 2004 election. At first blush the statistics don’t suggest very much. In 2000, the youth vote made up 16.4% of the total vote. In 2004 the youth vote was 18.4% of the vote.

But a look behind the statistics tells a different story. It’s not a matter of percentages; it’s a matter of turnout. In 2000, 16.2 million votes were cast by young adults. In 2000 this number rocketed up to 20.9 million votes. Do the math. That’s means that in four years nearly 30% more youth went to the polls than in 2000.

But it means more than just this. In 2004, 4.7 million new youth voters went to the polls. These are 4.7 million new voters out of a total voter pool of 115.9 million voters. Put another way, 4% of the voters in 2004 were new youth voters. Kerry captured 54% of the youth vote (compared with 48% of the youth vote for Gore in 2000.) Overall the youth vote added 3.51 million votes for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 compared with 2000.

The statistics only looked bad at first blush because turn up for all groups was up substantially this year. But among all the groups that voted the youth vote grew the most. Arguably it was because they had the furthest to rise. But perhaps they turned out in such force because they had such a stake in the election. It’s unlikely many of the older voters will have to fight America’s wars against terrorism.

The question now becomes whether this was a one-time event or whether we will see in future elections more and more young voters. And toward which party will they tilt? It is unlikely the evangelical vote will vote more red in 2008 than they did in 2004. But the youth voted more Democratic in 2004 than in 2000. If this is a trend then the youth vote might well decide the next presidential election. And since the youth vote tends toward the Democrats it might be premature for Republicans to think they have a permanent lock on any branch of government.

Only time will tell if the youth vote will continue to grow faster than other voting groups. But young adults are picking up the voting habit. For young adults voting is becoming mainstream. Having done it once it is reasonable to think they would be inclined to do it again. If they carry their Democratic leanings into midlife and beyond the country’s future is blue, not red.

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