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January 9, 2008

young voters in the presidential horse race

We have tracked young voters since 2001. In fact, CIRCLE is the only organization that provides estimates of youth turnout immediately after elections. The exit polls reveal what percentage of voters were young, but we calculate what percentage of young people voted.

We do not do this because we think that youth voting is intrinsically valuable or profoundly interesting, but because we believe that it is good for democracy--and for young people--if we can connect them to political and social institutions while they are young. Drawing attention to them as voters may encourage the press and politicians to pay attention to them, to listen to their views, and to address their issues. In turn, that attention may stimulate youth engagement with public institutions.

Thus it was very exciting when all the nation's major newspapers suddenly had prominent--often lead--articles on youth voting right after the Iowa caususes. Indeed, the statistics were startling: 65,000 young Iowans had caucused, at least three times as many as in any recent year. But in 2004, we also saw a very substantial increase in youth turnout in the general election (up 12 points compared to 2000). Yet youth turnout was widely described as disappointing that year. Yesterday in New Hampshire, the youth turnout increase was amazing, with 84,000 under-30s going to the polls. Yet I haven't yet seen too much discussion of that increase in the media.

The reason is clear. In Iowa, young people turned out strong and backed the winner. In 2004, they turned out strong but voted for Kerry, who lost. In New Hampshire yesterday, they practically doubled their turnout but voted for Obama, who lost. (Actually, the under-25s chose Obama but the 25-29s went for Clinton). Most reporters are interested in who wins. They therefore presume the following argument: Youth voted for X; X lost; ergo, youth turnout was disappointing.

At one level, I understand this. Who wins the presidency is a momentous question. But it is not the only question to ask about an election. The enormous expansion of the electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire has been a beautiful thing to watch, quite apart from who won. Besides, the horse-race frame can actually cause factual errors, as when the AP reported in 2004 that youth turnout had declined. At this point, I'm just a little concerned that youth will again be described as fickle or irrelevant, because the candidate who "needs" their vote (see Ben Adler in the Politico) happened to place second in New Hampshire.

PS I just stumbled on Ezra Klein's very thoughtful reflections on covering the horse race and what that can do to one's sense of reality.

January 9, 2008 1:25 PM | category: none


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