Thursday, January 8, 2009

Why Obama Won - By Jason Rae

When people look back at the 2008 presidential election, everyone can claim that this policy or that program or this group made the difference and helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency. In the end, it is probably likely that many, many factors went in to play, from issues like the economy to events like the debates and even to specific campaign tactics. There is one group of the electorate though that was pivotal in helping Obama secure the necessary electoral votes: young voters.

The media has often failed to properly portray the youngest generation of voters. Instead of identifying them as a civic minded and service oriented generation, the media and some political elite have labeled young voters as apathetic and uninvolved. The media, party elite, and others who underestimate the role of the youth vote need only look at the 2008 election results to see how important young voters are in any given election.

CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tuft's University, estimated that in the 2008 election 23 million young voters (defined as under 30 years of age) cast ballots for president. This is an increase of about four percentage points based on the 2004 exit polls, and the highest youth turnout since 1972 – another election held right in the midst of an international conflict.

One of the greatest strengths of the Obama campaign strategy was a concerted effort to register new voters. In states like Wisconsin, that is not as important because we allow same-day registration at the polls. However, in places like Virginia and Ohio, two states that were crucial to Obama's victory, the Obama campaign made a targeted effort to register new voters. Obviously, new voters are not synonymous with young voters. However, the efforts made on college campuses and large urban areas to register young voters before registration deadlines certainly helped to contribute to the over 23 million young voters casting ballots.

Beyond the number of voters, there is a number that is even more striking: 34 points. That is the margin between Obama and Senator McCain. President-Elect Obama received the support of 66% of young voters, while Senator McCain only had the support of 32% of young voters. This difference is one of the largest since the reporting of exit polls in 1976. The 34 points is crucial to understanding why Obama won in November. Had the margin been smaller, like previous elections, many of the states that were decided by only the narrowest of margins would have gone the other way. Take for example places like Indiana or North Carolina. Drop the support of young voters from 66% to say, perhaps, only 60% and you would likely see an entirely different person taking the oath of office on January 20.

An important question to be asked then is "why did President-Elect Obama finish the election with such a historic margin of support from young people?" Young voters today are the most progressive and most diverse group in the electorate. Despite government failures of leadership in trying times like September 11 or Katrina, young people see government as a vehicle for social change. This is different from the Generation X which saw business as the main force for solving problems.

Obviously, it was not young voters alone who got Obama elected, but young voters were instrumental in the effort. The campaign deserves credit for their work in developing peer-to-peer organizing efforts and providing for youth directors on the ground in most battleground states. The campaign knew full well that it could not neglect the youngest generation of voters and knew that we Millennials do matter. The Obama campaign, rightfully so, invested millions of dollars in targeting and turning out the youth vote.

However, this is not the end. Sadly, the record turnout did not necessarily translate into as many down ticket wins as Democrats may have hoped. This shows the party on a national and a local level must continue the efforts and funding of specific efforts to engage young voters. When young voters are engaged and involved, with campaigns specifically reaching out and involving them, we can see record turnouts. It shows that young voters are not a group that can be taken for granted. For when young voters vote, they help make decisions in elections.

Young voters have played and will continue to play an important role in elections in this country.

Do you agree or disagree with Jason? Be sure to leave a comment!

Jason Rae is a member of the Democratic National Committee and the current Chair of the College Democrats of Wisconsin. As one of the country's youngest Superdelegates and a leader within Wisconsin's Democratic political scene, he has worked to increase turnout among young voters and advocated for a greater youth participatory role within the Democratic Party.

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