In 2008, 18- to 29-year-olds voted in record numbers. Turnout this election was expected to be way down among that age group – a voting bloc known as the Millennials – but their numbers were on par with four years ago. Mitt Romney received 37 percent support from young people, about 7 points higher than John McCain, and Barack Obama clinched 60 percent of the youth vote this time around.
Felicia Sullivan is a researcher at CIRCLE, the premier polling organization tracking youth and politics. She was pleasantly surprised as the polling numbers started coming in.
“We were actually prepared to tell a story of 'why did youth turn out not be at the level it was at in 2008.' And we don’t have that story to tell, we have a better story,” says Sullivan.
Sullivan's organization – and pretty much everybody – expected fewer young people to vote this election. But that wasn’t the case.
Four years ago, crowds of cheering students filled the U.C. Berkeley campus after Barack Obama was elected to the presidency. And on November 6, 2012, it sounded pretty much the same. Yet, just before the election, many students admitted to being less engaged and less hopeful this time around.
Svea Joaqino, a freshman at Cal, supported the president, but said it was dangerous for him to become the poster boy for hope back in 2008, because it made it way too easy for young people to get their hopes dashed.
When I asked Joaqino what it would look like if Obama ran on hope again, she responded with a laugh.
“I don’t think he could do that again!”
Joshua Clayton, a 20-year-old living in West Oakland, has a cynical take on Obama’s message of hope.
“To me, nobody deserves my hope, because not one person on earth can prove themselves, nobody,” he said. “I would like to see this city rebuilt. I would like to see stuff like this fixed....holes in the ground. I would like to see my people not struggling no more.”
Walking around his neighborhood, he said it’s pretty much been the same his whole life, no matter who’s president: lots of poverty, too much violence, and decaying infrastructure.
“To me, if a president say he’s gone do something, I would say start on the places that really need it, because you’ve got places like this that are hopeless...that are going under,” said Clayton.
Clayton didn’t want to vote because he didn’t expect it to change anything. But his grandma kept working on him, telling him, “One vote really can make a difference.” He surprised even himself and cast a ballot, though he doubts Obama will be able to make the changes he’s promised.
Research shows that once young people vote, they’re more likely to keep voting for the rest of their lives. CIRCLE’s Felicia Sullivan says politicians can’t afford overlook the importance of the youth vote.
“This is a political group that needs to be courted and engaged and listened to and policies need to be put in place that serve their needs. And if you do that, they’ll support you,” she says. “There are 46 million of them. That’s 7 million more people than are senior citizens in this country.”
CIRCLE calculates that if just half the youth in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had voted differently or not at all, we’d be talking about be President-elect Romney instead of President Obama.