The youth vote is a fascinating phenomenon.  While it was somewhat unimportant in past elections, Obama has surfaced a demographic that can be influential in both number and power.  Although the youth vote is now associated soley with the democratic party, this was not always the case.  So is the reason for this revival of a demographic due to the candidate, the issues or the campaign?  That’s what I tried to find out.

When the proposition for an amendment to lower the voting age to 18 in all states, little opposition was shown.  It was predicted that young people would not vote anyway.  The 26th amendment was passed in 1971, and it turns out that predictions were accurate.  Voter turnout for the young population has been historically low.  When Bush was elected in 2000, only 34% of Americans 18-24 turned out at the polls.  This can be compared to the 68% of voters over 65.


But with Obama, that changed. “Frustrated by feckless Washington, energized by the unscripted, pundit-baffling freedom of a wide-open race, young people are voting [for Obama] in numbers rarely seen since the general election of 1972 — the first in which the voting age was lowered to 18.” (1)

As far as the population goes, the youth vote is an unbelievably powerful demographic to have control over.  46 million young people ages 18-29 are eligible to vote, making up 21% of the voting eligible population. Not only is the youth vote powerful in number, but also in their influential nature.  Youth populations in immigrant demographics are especially important.  “Young voters may be easier to reach, are more likely to speak English (cutting down on translation costs), and may be the most effective messengers within their communities.”  Overall, the youth vote is valuable and game changing. (2)

Of those young people registered, votes are cast in high numbers.  In 2008, 84% of the youth demographic that were registered to vote, turned out on election day.  The problem is the lack of registration.  Youth registration has been historically very low.   Because of this, Election Day Registration (EDR) makes a significant difference in the youth vote.  “On average, 59% of Americans whose home state offered Election Day Registration voted, nine percentage points higher than those who did not live in EDR states.”  When asked for reasons that people did not register to vote, youth voters were significantly more likely to answer that they missed registration deadlines or did not know where or how to register. (3)


However, it is evident that in the past elections that registration efforts on college campuses and in other youth environments have been controlled by the Democratic Party.  On the other end of the spectrum, Republican efforts to prevent voter fraud have been accused of being disguised attempts to prevent youth voters from making it to the polls.  But why is it that Democrats have taken control of the younger population?  “In 1984 and 1988, first Ronald Reagan and then George H. W. Bush won first time voters and under-29 voters by big margins. “ So what happened? (4)

David Frum of USA today believes that the reason is four-fold.

  1. Young people vote on what they know.  Young people of the past generation knew that Jimmy Carter failed and that Ronald Reagan triumphed.  All that this generation has memory of as far of the Republican Party goes are “a wave of disappointments and embarrassments: Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, congressional corruption scandals and the mortgage crisis.”
  2. While the Regan era was known as a positive and prosperous time for young workers fresh out of college, the Bush era only knew high college wages, unemployment and increased cost of housing.  All of these issues directly affect young people, and therefore affect their votes.
  3. The Republican Party has become almost synonymous with Christianity.  Younger voters are increasingly secular and tolerant of things that the Christian platform rejects.  Things like homosexuality and children outside of marriage have become progressively more accepted in younger populations.  The fact that the Republican Party has identified with a group that does not accept these is a turn off for younger voters.
  4. Today’s younger voters include a rising number of minorities, including Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans, all of which tilt strongly democratic. (5)

In the 2004 Election, Kerry had 54% of the vote among ages 18-29.  In 2008, Obama won 66% of the same.  Frum seems to think that the youth vote democratic soeley because of issues.  But I think there’s more to it than that. (6)

Obama as a candidate resonates with the young:

“Obama […] radiates the new. He doesn’t just talk about change; he looks like change. His person and his platform are virtually indistinguishable. Obama, like Tiger Woods and Angelina Jolie, has one of those faces that seem beamed from a postracial future, when everyone will have a permanent, noncarcinogenic tan. He has small kids and a low BMI. His voice rumbles with authority, but his ears stick out like Opie Taylor’s. His campaign is crawling with cool young people, and the candidate fits right in. We’ve yet to see Obama flustered or harried; instead, he gives off the enigmatic Zen confidence of the guy who is picked first for every game.” (7)

In addition to Obama resonating with the youth population, he also knows how to reach them. Obama’s campaign team realized “half the campaign’s targeted swing-state voters under the age of 29 had no listed phone number.”  The Obama campaign went beyond traditional Facebook pages and created an app that had more than 1 million backers who handed over permission to their friend lists.  Since voters trust their friends more than they trust campaigns, Obama was able to utilize those with the app.  Users could reach their friends with targeted messages with just a click.  Young people, as spoken to above, are influencers in the political sphere. (8)

Indeed, social media played a huge role in Obama’s two election campaigns.  Ryan Cohn, the VP of Social/Digital Operations for Sachs Media Group discussed who was winning the social media war a month before the 2012 election.  Obama ran “an aggressive premium Facebook advertising campaign.”  The president paid to have his messages on all newsfeeds, regardless of whether or not users had liked his page.  Obama also created a variety of separate pages for specific demographics and locations.  Pages targeted for African Americans used messaging from Morgan Freeman, jay-Z and Maya Angelou, for example.  Romney fell short on this front and focused most of his efforts only on his main fan page with little specificity in his targeting. (9)

The Obama campaign also worked hard to take control of “social savvy messaging.”  Facebook’s Manager Katie Harbath reports, “photos get 2x the engagement than just posts with text.  If you do post text, no more than 250 characters.”  Obama’s campaign overlaid inspirational pictures with minimal messages that were easily shareable.  The Obama campaign also utilized simple info graphics that were viewable from scrolling on Facebook’s newsfeed. (9)


Obama, according to Social Bakers, dominated the twitter-sphere as well.  In sheer volume, Obama overwhelmingly overshadowed Romney in number of followers, number of tweets, average retweets and replies.  While Obama tweeted more about issues than his opponent, most of Romney’s tweets were @BarackObama.  The top 10 most popular tweets during the election all belonged to the President. (10) Including the most retweeted tweet of all time at the conclusion of the election:

ImageObama had three things working him when it came to the youth vote.  Because the social issues, his youthful personality, and his social media efforts were so appealing, it isn’t surprising that the youth votes were so heavily in his favor. However, with one factor missing in 2016 with (perhaps) Hillary Clinton, will the other two be enough to swing the millennial vote?  It’s hard to identify Hillary as having a cool factor.  In fact, most of the primary campaign efforts were aimed at convincing the public to believe the contrary.  Will the youth still be as energized and excited to rush to the polls next time?  It will be interesting to see if the trifecta can stand with just two feet.


2. http://www.civicyouth.org/quick-facts/youth-voting/

3. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS07_Registration.pdf

4. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS_College_Voting.pdf

5. http://www.aei.org/article/politics-and-public-opinion/elections/why-the-gop-lost-the-youth-vote/

6. http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls.main/

7. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1708836,00.html

8. http://swampland.time.com/2012/11/20/friended-how-the-obama-campaign-connected-with-young-voters/

9. http://socialfresh.com/obama-vs-romney-facebook-strategy/

10. http://www.socialbakers.com/blog/890-obama-vs-romney-a-social-slugfest


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