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The Challenges of Mobilizing Young Voters

10:31 AM, Aug 13, 2008 • By GARY ANDRES
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On street corners across America, Democratic volunteers are feverishly trying to register young voters. Why? First, because this age cohort overwhelmingly supports Barack Obama. According to the latest Gallup poll (July 28-Aug 3) he leads McCain 56 percent to 35 percent among 18-29 year olds. And second, young voters remain a large untapped electoral prize. Political scientist Charles Franklin explains why.

He notes that in 2004, 18-29 year olds were about 22% of the population, but only 16% of the electorate. Contrast this to older Americans (58 and above) who comprised about 25% of the population, but 29% of voters. Franklin displays the relationship between age and turnout visually in this chart.

Franklin also highlights why Democratic organizers see so much potential among young voters and why this cohort has room to grow compared to their parents and grandparents.

No age group [within the 18-29 category] managed to reach 45% turnout in 2000, and only two made it in 2004. Not one single age group over 30 fell so low in either year. Despite a little noise for each group, the pattern is a strong rise in participation rates with every year of age at least until the late 60s, after which there is some decline. Yet even among those 85 and over the turnout rate remains above 55%, more then 10 points higher than among their 20-something grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Pundits debate the potential of expanded youth turnout every election year. 2008 adds to the drama and mystery because of Obama's conscious appeals to themes and narratives that attract young voters. We'll see. Elections are won on the margins and even if young Americans turn out at lower rates than their older counterparts (which they will), an incremental surge among 18-29-year-olds will help Obama. Having said that, the McCain camp enjoys strong support from a cohort that consistently votes at higher rates. Given these patterns and current poll numbers, a strong counter mobilization campaign among the "geezers" might pay some rich electoral dividends for the presumptive GOP nominee.