Young Voters Could Put Obama or Clinton in the White House

If predictions hold true, the youngest demographic could help a Democrat win the presidency.

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Obama supporters in Missouri cheer at a night time campaign rally.

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Maybe it's because of the compelling candidates. Maybe it's because it's easy to register online, and they've been following the election on Facebook for months now anyway. Or maybe it's just cool.

But young people are actually voting.

Counter to the conventional wisdom that the youngest demographic of voters are among the most apathetic, progress has been made among the "millennials," and voter turnout has solidly increased this primary season. More than 5.7 million voters under the age of 30 have participated in the primaries and caucuses held thus far. That's a 109 percent increase from the last set of presidential primaries, according to Rock the Vote. And these are the primaries, where voter turnout is usually abysmal.

"I think everyone was pretty much expecting an increase...but the size of the increase was pretty surprising," says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Looking toward the general election, 80 percent of young people surveyed in a post-Super Tuesday Rock the Vote poll said they were likely to cast votes in November, and 69 percent said they were excited, yes excited, to vote. In reality, turnout will probably more closely resemble the 49 percent who voted in 2004, up from 40 percent who voted in 2000.

At a time when voter turnout has been on the rise nationally, if young voters turn out this year, it would continue the trend of increased voter turnout among young people since 2004, when young voters were the only demographic that Democrat John Kerry won. Youth voter turnout had spiraled downward since 1972, the year after the voting age changed to 18, though it spiked in 1992 and marginally increased in 2000. In 2004, while voter turnout among the young saw the biggest increase, turnout overall among older voters was still better. Young voters went to the polls in increased numbers for the 2006 midterm election, helping Democrats regain control of Congress.

While the youth vote trended toward the Republicans in the 1980s, today it leans Democratic. As recently as 2002, Republicans were on equal footing with the Democrats in youth partisan identification. But then in 2006, the youth vote gave the Democrats a 21-point advantage, a gain surely wide enough to tip some close races in the Democrats' favor.

This time around, young people are again voting lopsidedly for the Democrats. On Super Tuesday, more than 3 million voters under 30 headed to the polls. Of those, more than 2 million voted in Democratic contests, and about 900,000 voted in GOP contests, according to CIRCLE. And the number of young voters participating in Democratic contests in 2008 outnumbers those participating in Republican contests in all states except Michigan, which lost its Democratic delegates, Utah, and Oklahoma.

All the support for the Democrats doesn't necessarily spell demise in this demographic for Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee. "Young voters have done a lot for Republicans in recent years; Kerry won the young vote but it wasn't by that big of a margin," says Levine. "I think they are trending Democratic, but they are in play."

In this year's primaries, McCain wrestled for the youth vote, losing it often in the South to Mike Huckabee. However, in 2000, he won it over George W. Bush in states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which allow independents to vote in their primaries. His known appeal among independent voters could help come general election time.

"I think he has an incredible number of strengths that he brings to the table," says Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee. While young people identifying with both parties are concerned about the war in Iraq, other top issues for Republican youth are the economy and terrorism, according to a Rock the Vote poll taken in October 2007. For the Democrats, it's college affordability and healthcare. Focusing on fiscal responsibility and a strong national policy on defense, Eilon says, can help McCain win younger GOP voters and perhaps some vital independent voters too.