by Stewart Boss | June 25, 2012
The youth vote is traditionally overlooked and often outright ignored in today’s politics. But in 2008 it was a critical part of how President Obama expanded the competitiveness of the electoral map across the country. Without the margins obtained from voters under 30, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia would have voted for Republican John McCain in 2008.
While Obama is almost certain to win young voters again by a large margin, the size of that margin is increasingly vulnerable. The importance of the youth vote is therefore magnified for swing states in 2012 – none more so than North Carolina, where nearly 1.4 million people between the ages of 18 and 29 are eligible to vote.
Democrats are investing a significant amount of resources into winning our state again by building up their grassroots operations, spending millions on TV ads, and hosting the party’s convention in Charlotte this September. Republicans, eager to avoid the mistakes of 2008, have been busy airing TV ads of their own and sending surrogates for Mitt Romney throughout the state. Yet, as demonstrated by 2008 exit polling and demographic analysis, their success could be entirely dictated by two key factors: turnout and vote share of the 18-29 year old voting bloc.
In 2008, the 55% of young voters who cast a ballot in North Carolina represented a 10% increase in turnout over 2004. Exacerbating the importance of this increase is that Obama managed to win North Carolina with a razor-thin margin of less than 15,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast, beating McCain 49.7%-49.4%, while losing all of the over-30 age groups.
The New York Times pollster Nate Silver confirms the importance of turnout in an analysis of how the voter dynamics in North Carolina make it an ‘inelastic’ swing state:
“A good example of an inelastic state is North Carolina. It has quite a few African-American voters, who are almost sure to vote for Mr. Obama. But it also has plenty of rural white Southerners, many of them evangelical conservatives, who almost certainly won’t. To a lesser extent, it also has some highly educated and very liberal white voters in the Research Triangle, who are also quite likely to be Obama voters. That doesn’t leave very many voters left over. North Carolina is a swing state (or at least it was in 2008), because the coalition of Democratic base voters was quite close in size to the coalition of Republican base voters. But it wasn’t a state with a lot of persuadable voters: it’s the kind of place where elections mostly boil down to turnout, and Mr. Obama — with his considerably stronger ground game — was able to edge out a win there in 2008.”
The makeup of North Carolina’s electorate means that high or low turnout in one big metro county like Mecklenburg or Wake can tip the scales and decide who wins in a swing state with not all that many swing voters. The same is true of the youth vote. If Obama hopes to win North Carolina in 2012, he will need to make sure that his key core constituencies, especially young people, are going to show up at the polls to vote for him again.
It’s also important to consider the grassroots advantage that comes with having masses of enthusiastic young organizers eager to register and mobilize voters. With billionaires now committed to spending “limitless” amounts of money through super PACs to elect Romney by attacking Obama with negative TV ads in battleground states, that grassroots contact with voters will be even more important for Democrats now than it was in 2008.
Certain decisions, such as Obama’s personal endorsement of same-sex marriage, might help energize some young people, but the conventional wisdom is that the excited college kids who volunteered for Obama four years ago are more and more disenchanted with the President now that he’s an incumbent with the baggage of partisan warfare and unfulfilled campaign promises. Closing the enthusiasm gap with young voters will be one of Obama’s key challenges this year.
Nationally, we see the importance of vote share where youth turnout was steady in 2008 compared to previous elections and opposed to the record rise in North Carolina. From that perspective, the issue for Obama recapturing the youth vote isn’t really turnout, but the extent to which young voters get behind him again in 2012. The Washington Post’s The Fix blog explains:
“Young voters comprised 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, a one-point improvement from their share of the electorate in 2004, 2000 and 1996, but nowhere near the heights they reached in the 1980s.
What Obama did do — good grammar! — is win young voters by a far greater margin than any Democratic presidential nominee in modern times.
Again, we turn to a chart looking at the percentages the Democratic and Republican nominees won among 18-29-year-old voters:”
Vote share is going to matter in North Carolina too. The most recent statewide poll from Public Policy Polling gave Romney a two-point edge over Obama, 48%-46%. Media coverage of the poll focused on the possibility that Obama could be losing African American voters, but there’s another statistic that matters a lot more for November. PPP noted: “Unsurprisingly, Obama still holds down the youth vote (age 18 to 29) convincingly, 54-38.”
Obama’s 54%-38% lead over Romney among young voters in North Carolina is certainly comfortable, but it’s also way, way down from when Obama carried 74% of the state’s youth vote in 2008, which exceeded the 66% of the youth vote he obtained nationwide. It was Obama’s ability to both win a commanding 74% of the under-30 age group of voters and increase youth turnout by 10% that delivered North Carolina for Democrats.
To put the significance of the youth vote’s impact in North Carolina into historical perspective, Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since President Jimmy Carter in 1976. President George W. Bush won North Carolina in 2000 and again in 2004 by more than 12 points with 56% of the vote. President Bill Clinton was competitive in 1996 and even came within 20,000 votes of taking the state away from President George H.W. Bush in 1992, but there was also a serious third-party candidate in Ross Perot that year who managed to take away a substantial number of votes from the Republican incumbent. It’s safe to say that young voters turned North Carolina into a presidential swing state.
Repeating the success of Obama’s 2008 win was always an ambitious goal, and the state’s tumultuous political climate shows that this year will be even more of an uphill climb for the Obama campaign. The last four consecutive polls show Romney leading Obama in North Carolina by an average of 3.3 points. The Republican candidate for governor, Pat McCrory, is the state’s most popular politician, while the Democratic Governor Bev Perdue (who’s not seeking reelection) is now the country’s most unpopular governor. The state’s Democratic Party is still embroiled in the aftermath of an embarrassing sexual harassment scandal, and voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment One, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions, the day before the President personally endorsed same-sex marriage on national television in May.
The shifting poll numbers are cause for concern, and it probably means the Obama campaign needs to do more to appeal to and motivate those voters under 30 who were so inspired last time around. McCain more or less ignored the youth vote in 2008, but don’t expect Romney to make the same mistake: he’s already staking out policy positions that could help him “rock the youth vote” – or at least not lose it so badly – in 2012. Nobody is all that worried that Obama will lose the youth vote in North Carolina, but he will need to match or exceed the youth turnout and vote share of 2008 to eke out another victory here in November.