Barack Obama's Advantage Among Young Voters Could Carry the Election

Young voters don't ordinarily turn out, but this year they might.

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It is not surprising that a recent national poll found that voters in the 18-to-24 age bracket are supporting Sen. Barack Obama by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Republicans are probably not too concerned about that significant difference because the youth vote is always among the weakest in terms of actual turnout on Election Day.

That valid argument in the past has been that older voters in presidential elections are more conservative and follow through more reliably. In fact, statistics show that voters over age 65 turn out the most reliably.

This year may be different.

The bad news for the McCain-Palin ticket is that 79 percent of the 2,406 people polled in the survey said they were registered to vote and 63 percent said they would definitely vote either on November 4 or in early balloting.

The poll was conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. And before GOP partisans start clucking at a partisan venue, the survey is decidedly nonpartisan in the questions and in its sampling of voting-age college, noncollege, and working youth.

Further, the poll was conducted from September 12 through October 6, a critical time after the conventions and through three of the four presidential and vice presidential debates. It was taken at a time when many voters were really paying attention for the first time.

Senator Obama was favored by 56 percent, with 30 percent for Sen. John McCain and 15 percent undecided. If that undecided factor splits even, Obama will still be preferred by comfortably over 60 percent. That could be critical for Obama in swing states with sizable numbers of the young, such as Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia, and even Florida.

The economy, again no surprise, is an overwhelming concern. Many of these young people are going to be in the job market or are already seeking jobs. They surely see a dismal outlook with job cuts in every business sector.

Meanwhile, the war in Iraq has fallen like a rock as a top concern—37 percent in a similar poll in the fall of 2007 to just 9 percent today.

Like many older voters, those in the 18-to-24 category were not impressed by McCain's choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate. A substantial number—40 percent—said it would make them "less likely" to vote for the senator from Arizona.

The Palin factor has been a recurring problem for the Republicans in the past few weeks after an initial boomlet among the GOP base and the all-important independents.

It is true that the 18-to-24 bracket can be a big letdown for the Democrats. In 1972, Sen. George McGovern's aides counted heavily on a huge advantage there against President Nixon because of anger over the war in Vietnam. In that Nixon landslide, even the 18-to-24 group went to Nixon by a tiny margin.

Will this year be different? Judging by the enthusiasm of young volunteers and bolstered by polls such as this one, it seems entirely possible. Crowds at political rallies can be deceiving as a gauge of turnout, but the young have been there in big numbers for Obama.