Friday, January 04, 2008

The youth vote

A lot has been said of the record shattering numbers from last night’s caucuses – moreso on the Democratic side. The numbers are staggering, no matter how you slice them.

With that, there has been some talk about the demographics in terms of young voters, new voters and how they are more energized or motivated than in years past. While we saw this as well in 2004, there is a further uptick now. Of course, this is only based on one state’s caucuses, but there are stories from New Hampshire as well about the level of motivation by “younger folk”, and judging by the large number of Facebook “elections” (and votes), this may be something that has legs.

All that being said, I wanted to go through a few numbers, but also to explore what this means – less in terms of which candidate it works best for, but more along the lines of the Democratic Party and the potential for keeping these votes in the future as well as keeping them engaged enough in the political process that it adds to the movement that we here on the left have been trying to build for the past few years.

According to CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), the youth turnout rate rose to 13 percent from 4 percent in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000. About 65,000 Iowans under the age of 30 caucused.

That, in and of itself is a huge number. Taking into account that the temperatures were frigid, at best, yesterday, and this is even more impressive. More stats from Young Voter PAC are as follows:

Initial statistics for youth (ages 18-29) turnout in Iowa:

The youth turnout rate tripled in Iowa.

Out of all of Barack Obama’s support in Iowa, 57% came from young voters (CNN, MSNBC, FOX).

60% of the caucus participants were first time caucus goers and of those 39% of them went for Obama.

22% of the Democratic caucus goers were young people, up from 17% in 2004.

A total of 65,230 young people were caucus-goers in 2008. 52,580 caucused with Democrats and only 12,650 turned out for Republicans. That means of the young people that turned out, 80% were for Democrats!

The totals for both parties are 239,000 Democrats (compared to 125,000 in 2004) and 115,000 Republicans.

Again, I don’t want to make this into something about Edwards or Clinton or Obama – since I am sure that these numbers can be sliced up in a number of ways to support whatever you want to support, and as someone who is now pretty much in the “undecided” category after Dodd’s withdrawal, I don’t really care enough now to take the discussion in that direction.

That being said, there are a few things that come to mind:

1. What does this mean, if anything long term?

2. Is this for real or just an aberration? (I think it is for real)

3. Why is the youth coming out so strong?

4. Who does this benefit?

5. How do we keep this going?

As for the first question, Bowers had a good post last night and there was one paragraph that stood out in terms of “long term” (again, I don’t mean this as support for Obama, but facts are facts – emphasis is mine):

Toward the end, many voters broke for Edwards. However, more voters broke for Obama, specifically new and young voters. Tonight, Obama won because he did something many campaigns have claimed they would do in the past, but never until now had never actually accomplished: he turned out young voters and new voters in record-smashing numbers. This has long been the holy grail of progressive politics, and until now no one had been able to pull it off. Well, Obama pulled it off. That is a remarkable an historic accomplishment. That is why he won.

It has been said that if a youth votes for the same party in three consecutive elections, they are fairly likely to stay with that party for life.

So, on the surface, this would appear to be a real good thing as far as Democrats go. Youth turnout was very high in 2004, it was very high in 2006 and so far, there is a lot of motivation for 2008. Youth turnout was much higher in Iowa for Democrats than republicans, and going by the “Facebook election”, all Democratic candidates (or at least as much as I remember) had more friends than the republican counterparts, and the number of campaign donations of under $100 (more likely from youth in my unscientific opinion) were for Obama and Democrats than republicans (other than maybe Ron Paul).

To answer points 2 and 3 above, it would look like this is for real, and is not an aberration. The way that the republican party has turned off most voters, and certainly turned off many young voters on a large number of issues seems to indicate that there is a lot of motivation to “take control” of a situation that is spiraling out of control – whether it is on the environment/global warming, the foreign policy disasters (after all, who are the ones that are being shipped off to Iraq – or who are most of those that are coming back with PTSD, severely injured or dead?) and a number of social issues that are coming under attack.

However, as my good friend The Maven said to me earlier – we should be cautious of this, depending on (1) if the Democrats extend their gains in Congress and win the White House and (2) what they do (or don’t do) with respect to Iraq and a number of other issues and problems that face our country – and of course, are important to young voters. To quoth The Maven (and not “never more”):

This is a demographic cohort that may indeed stay very heavily involved throughout this election year and into next, but two years from now, faced with a Democratic Administration and growing majorities in both branches of Congress that has managed to accomplish surprisingly little substantively (due to a powerful combination of Republican obstructionism and institutional inertia), what then?

I foresee a strong possibility that many of these younger voters might turn vehemently against the Democrats, both supporting our opponents as well as becoming extremely cynical and dropping out of the political process (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice . . .).

In that sense, I guess I'm trying to say -- not very successfully -- that a serious effort has to be made to ensure that these younger voters are actually in it for the long haul and do not become so disenchanted by the beast that is our political system (and whatever Obama might want to believe, the right wing will not go gentle into that good night) that they abandon the public fight and tune inward. That's how so much of the activism of the 1960s mutated into the Me Generation of the 1970s, which led to . . . well, you know how that story goes.

So this certainly could be a huge benefit to the Democratic Party, especially if they do some of the things that they promised (or promise) to do. However, if little gets done (due to republican obstruction or other), then there is a risk of losing a part of this segment to apathy. This, obviously, is a challenge – and leads to the last point of “how do we keep this going?”

If you think that this 37 year old has the answer to that one, then you are mistaken. I think that some of this depends on what happens over the next few years, and we as dedicated activists can only do so much there. Obviously, educating and setting the tone of the debate and story lines are where we can help a lot. Using the new(ish) technology that the intertubes provides us is very important as the progressive movement has a pretty good headstart with the use of YouTube, Facebook and internet outreach.

But a lot of this depends on the Obamas, the Edwards’s, Clintons and the many online organizations to keep the pressure on our elected leaders in order to effect change. The generation in power now will not be in power for all that much longer – relatively speaking. It is this wave of people who are just getting acclimated to politics and the political process who will be driving the political agenda for the next generation.

The trick and the $64,000 question is to figure out how to keep them motivated, especially when times get rough (as we have all been going through for the past few years) and not have them tune out.

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