Fending off accusations of apathy, youth voters turned out to the presidential election in historic numbers, exceeding the turnout of their grandparents' generation and swinging at least two states for President-elect Barack Obama.
Up to 54.5 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 voted on Tuesday, just 1 percentage point shy of youth voter turnout's all-time high in 1972, according to preliminary reports. They made up a higher proportion of the electorate—18 percent—than the 65-and-older age category, which accounted for 16 percent.
And they leaned overwhelmingly toward the Democratic ticket. For every one vote cast for John McCain, two young people cast votes for Obama.
Both Indiana and North Carolina went blue solely because of the millennials, as 18-to-29-year-olds are known. Barack Obama lost every other age category in those states. And in the battleground state of Florida, although Obama had a very slight edge in other age groups overall, it was the 61 percent of youths who cast Democratic ballots that solidified his lead.
It's a huge watershed, one that represents a number of factors, from the generation's financial struggles to new technology to the appeal of Obama's message. But it's also been in the making for several years.
"Baked into the millennials' DNA is making a world a better place," says John Della Volpe, director of polling for the Harvard Institute of Politics. "They just didn't believe they could do that by voting." That began to change with September 11, he says. A wake-up call to the generation, September 11 made the issues debated in Congress suddenly seem relevant. Youth voter participation began to climb. In 2004, nearly half of youths voted—7 percentage points more than in 2000.
But a confluence of factors pushed Tuesday's youth turnout up another 6 percentage points to a disproportionate level—19 percent more Americans ages 18 to 29 voted than in 2004 compared with 12 percent more Americans voting in the overall electorate.
One top reason, say analysts, was the economy. Millennials are particularly familiar with financial difficulties and have expressed concerns about the economy for longer than their older counterparts. In 2006, although 14 percent of older voters named the economy as their top issue, 23 percent of youths did.
Youths, at the bottom of the job ladder, are always more vulnerable. But millennials have been having a tough time long before the financial crisis. Some estimates say that their generation will be the first that won't be financially better off than that of their parents. They're dealing with more college debt than ever—nearly $20,000 for the average student. And more than a quarter lack healthcare coverage, a rate twice as high as the rest of the population.
Another big factor in the youth vote, however, was timing. Most millennials became politically conscious under the Bush administration. Now, they had a chance to make a difference, they say. "This became our moment," says the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a youth voting initiative. "We saw that . . . if we don't do it now, we aren't ever going to do it."
Obama's messages of inclusion and multilateralism particularly resonated with young voters. The millennial generation is not only diverse but characterized by the closing gap among races on their policy outlooks, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. Young whites are nearly as supportive of universal healthcare as their African-American counterparts, for example, and even more so than Hispanics. On foreign policy, too, millennials tend to be broader in their outlook, says Della Volpe. "Their definition of community is far different from what the baby boomer's message of community is," he says. "Being a good U.S. citizen is being a good global citizen." That was an Obama message more than a McCain message, he says.
But in getting that message out—and in getting youths to the polls at all—technology was crucial, says Sujatha Jahagirdar, director of the Student PIRGs New Voters Project, a nonpartisan organization aimed at registering new voters. Get-out-the-vote efforts targeted youths through Facebook groups, voter registration widgets on high-trafficked university websites, and text-messaged reminders to vote, she says.
The Obama campaign also relied on new technologies, even employing an online phone bank that Web-savvy volunteers could tap into to call up constituents and encourage them to vote.
The effect on the youth vote, experts say, was historic. "Let's be serious," says Yearwood. "This was also much more than an election. This became a movement."