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Where’s Alexander? Part V: Youth in charge

President Obama’s re-election victory shows that young people remain a focal point in the present-day American political system. While the national youth margin for President Obama slipped slightly, millennials maintain their place AS one of the central coalitions of the new Democratic majority: single women, Hispanics and young voters.

In battleground states, the youth vote was decisive. According to Tufts University’s preliminary analysis, Obama would have lost the election without capturing the youth vote in key states like Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. As its Boston-based CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) reported, the 2012 election is the most recent of three consecutive presidential election cycles – 2004, 2008 and this year – “with youth turnout in the vicinity of 50% each time, compared to just 37% in 1996 and 41% in 2000.” Thanks to demographic shifts, an inclusive value system – as well as to the Democrats’ superior registration apparatus, the Obama campaign achieved 58% youth turnout in the swing states.

Youth voting data from The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Here’s what you need to know, according to the election results and exit polls available so far.

(1) Despite pre-election surveys showing disengagement and, as I witnessed, visibly less campus enthusiasm, President Obama still won 60% of 18-29 year-old voters in 2012. That’s compared to 66% in 2008. GOP support grew from Senator John McCain’s 30% in 2008 to 37% for Romney-Ryan in 2012.

(2) Obama captured more than his national 60% margin of victory among youth in the battlegrounds of Florida (66%), Nevada (68%), Ohio (62%), Pennsylvania (63%) and Virginia (61%). The only swing-state to defy this trend was Iowa, where a smaller 56% of young Americans supported Obama.

(3) Youth turnout slightly decreased from 52% in 2008 to 50% in 2012, but young people’s representation as a share of the electorate grew from 18% in 2008 to 19% in 2012. Consequently, it is possible that the over-22-million total number of young voters in 2012 will exceed the sum of 2008’s young voters once all the ballots are counted.

In my first post-election visit to a campus, Tulane University students were roughly split in their immediate reactions to the election results. While the school is surrounded by a very conservative constituency, many of its students come from across the country.

The outcome surprised those who are increasingly concerned with their own post-college job security – a change of horse is what they expected. Still, a majority believe that – while in the run-up to the election they or their peers were not as vocal as they were 2008 – both second-time and newly registered 18-29 year-olds cast their ballots for the candidates whose leadership they trusted and whose views they found Gen Y-friendly.

During the campaign, when traveling from campus to campus, President Obama spoke frequently about his prospective second term’s investment in education, particularly community colleges and specialized training opportunities for better-paying jobs. This focus, combined with his proven advocacy for college affordability, appealed most visibly to students at Long Island University, the first stop in this series.

While the Obama campaign capitalized on mastering Electoral College science, communicating successfully with young voters in the swing-states, there was not the overwhelming connection that defined 2008’s engagement of college and under-30 millennial voters. Now the question is whether or not the next four years can further bring young people into the political process, and the answer depends on a host of variables.

(1) Will the next administration more effectively incorporate younger voters into a grassroots governing strategy?

(2) Will Democrats and Republicans tone down the partisan rhetoric and be willing, finally, to work with each other ahead of the next midterm election cycle?

(3) Will the GOP modernize to represent more segments of the growing youth population?

No presidential candidate had secured a 66% super-majority of the 18-29 pie nor had one repeated at least 60% among youth voters four years later until President Obama. At the same time, no commander-in-chief had been elected with higher unemployment among younger Americans since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those extremes – dominant support for an incumbent amid the most severe economic challenges among 18-29 year olds – may mean there is more at stake for millennials in the next four years than at any previous moment.

Among both Obama and Romney supporters at Tulane, there was a consensus that Obama’s next term must focus concretely on jobs and the economy, while paying down the nation’s debt. However, several students also said the administration must be more engaged on environmental issues, like global climate change, in the wake of weather-related crises.

There is no doubt that the Hispanic president of UC Irvine’s Young democrats (whom I described in my second story), alongside a generation of first-generation citizens and Latinos, will be advocating for immigration reform. Given the rapidly-moving minority-majority trends – and the Republican necessity to win back Hispanic voters to stay politically relevant – this is the policy arena in which compromise is most possible.

In my final report, I will chronicle the last trip of this series at Mount Holyoke, a liberal arts college for women, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. What do progressive voters who preserved Pres. Obama’s potentially fractious youth brigade expect from his second term? Young – especially single – women’s abandonment of the modern-day Republican Party was instrumental to Democratic victories, as the gender gap widened across the country. What is on their minds since the nation voted?

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