Punch-Drunk From Watching the Polls? Blame Today's Youth

Can't figure out the scattershot polls? Blame young voters, who are totally befuddling pollsters.

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Watching the polls this political season has been a bit like standing on top of the net in a ping-pong match and keeping one's eye on the ball—an impossible feat. It all started with Sen. Barack Obama's surprise win in Iowa, followed by Sen. Hillary Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire (where polls showed Obama ahead.)

Then we saw the "generic" Democratic candidate for president ahead of the "generic" Republican by double digits, only to see polls after the GOP convention with Sen. John McCain way ahead of Obama.

Why the ups and downs? Well, polls, as a "snapshot in time," do tend to jump all over the place in close elections. But this year goes beyond that.

A Christian Science Monitor article published yesterday helped explain why:

More than in any other presidential election in recent times, polls may be failing to capture accurately what's happening in the American electorate. There are a couple of reasons, but the most key for the pollsters are massive voter-registration drives, especially by the Democrats, which have created millions of first-time voters. Pollsters aren't quite sure yet how to calculate the impact of all these new voters on the election.

As the article goes on to explain, pollsters are going bonkers trying to figure out how much weight to give to first-time voters, to young voters, and to other new entrants to the political scene.

But I hesitate to put too much faith in an increased youth vote, because young adults (18 to 24) are the most underrepresented of any demographic group in national elections:

Only once since 1972 have more than 50 percent of youths voted in a presidential election. Still, some groups are saying that this year is going to be different. CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, has released several reports measuring the youth vote in various presidential and congressional elections. According to them, the 2000 presidential primaries had only a 9 percent turnout from voters under the age of 30, but the 2008 primaries saw nearly double that. For the past three election cycles, there has been an increase in the number of voters aged 18 to 24. Such increases have not occurred in almost 40 years. Now, as we look towards Election Day in November, we can be hopeful that even more youth will turn out.

In 2004, 47 percent of those aged 18 to 24 voted. While this might seem high, compare it to the 66 percent of voters 25 and over that turned out.

My take is, don't depend too heavily on the youth vote to vastly increase voter participation rates. Young people typically have less money than their older counterparts (makes sense since older people have been out in the workforce longer). So many of them tend to vote in lower-income neighborhoods. In recent elections, some of those neighborhoods have been plagued by inadequate numbers of polling booths, broken polling booths, and hours-long lines for would-be voters. I'll never forget the media reports from Ohio in 2004 about low-income voters waiting in the rain for six hours to vote. How many 20-year-olds can withstand that type of test to cast a ballot?

Obviously, the Obama campaign is hoping tons will. But I'm taking a "I'll believe it when I see it" stance.