Barack Obama's greatest success to date is his ability to mobilize American youth, who have voted in overwhelming numbers in this year's primaries and caucuses. Without the large turnout of college students and 18-24 year olds, Hillary would currently be the nominee. It is always assumed that Democrats garner the youth vote and this was true in the past few elections (18-24 year olds supported Kerry over Bush in 2004, 56 to 44 percent. That same year, party identification among 18-24 year olds split 39 percent Democrat, 32 percent Republican, and 29 percent unaffiliated). Yet this was not always the case. Ronald Reagan won the youth vote by more than 20 points in 1980 and 1984 and George H.W. Bush also won the youth vote in 1988, although by a smaller margin.
And while most of the youth registered as Democrats to vote for Obama in the state-by-state contests, there are some encouraging signs for the GOP. In most contests, 18-24 year olds as a pecertage of total Democratic voters was usually only a point or two higher than the portion of 18-24 year olds as a percentage of total Republican voters--the largest difference occured in Iowa, where 22 percent of Democrats were 18-24 years old compared to only 11 percent of Republicans--this can be attributed to the excitement leading up to the first-in-the-nation caucuses and Obama's unprecedented campus mobilization effort. In two states--Arkansas and Connecticut--young voters (18-24) actually made up a greater proportion of Republican primary voters than Democratic primary voters. In three states, 18-24 year olds turned out in greater numbers to vote Republican than Democrat--in other words, a majority of 18-24 year olds who turned out to vote in Florida, Georgia, and Utah voted Republican.
And the Obama magic may be starting to wear off. A recent AP-Yahoo! News poll finds that 38 percent of 18-29 year olds support McCain vs. 37 percent for Obama (McCain wins young voters 43-28 percent against Hillary). Trying to obtain an accurate sample of youth is fairly difficult since many have only cell phones (no landlines) and are in college, moving back and forth from their personal places of residency to their campuses. Yet the poll shows that McCain's independent image as a maverick and reformer can help offset and neutralize Obama's appeal.
One thing is for sure: no party can afford to ignore the youth vote any longer. More than 10 million youth turned out to vote in the 2006 midterm elections, a 4 percent increase from 2004. Those numbers are expected to dramatically increase this year, making the "millenial" generation a powerful voting block and a force to be reckoned with in future elections.