February 11, 2008

Young Voters in the 2008 Presidential Primaries

by Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center and an analyst for NBC News

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A great deal of attention on Super Tuesday was focused on young voters, especially in the Democratic contests. Pew polling over the past few years has shown that young voters are trending Democratic and constitute an important constituency for the party. Currently, a clear majority of registered voters ages 18-29 say they are Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party while about a third identify with the Republican Party.

Partly as a reflection of this party affiliation advantage, young voters were the age group that provided John Kerry with his highest level of support in 2004; they were also the age group most supportive of Democratic Party congressional candidates in 2006. Also notable in those high-profile elections was the fact that voter turnout among young adults increased even more than it did among other age groups. The same thing is happening again this year in the Democratic primaries.

According to the NBC News exit polls, young voters’ share of the Democratic electorate on Feb. 5 was higher in nearly every state for which a good comparison with 2004 is available.1 In all of the 2008 contests for which exit poll data are available, young people have constituted an average (median) of 14% of Democratic primary voters, up from a median of 9% in the set of comparable contests in 2004.

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The surge in youth turnout has occurred in a diverse collection of states, including those with large African-American populations (Georgia, South Carolina), those that are nearly all-white (Iowa, New Hampshire), and one with a large Hispanic population (California). Youth turnout as a percentage of the total is up in states that voted at the very beginning of the primary process and for which the comparisons with 2004 are most apt (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina), as well as in those where the 2004 comparison is to contests held in March of that year after the nomination was essentially settled (California, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York).

Barack Obama won a majority of the 2008 vote among this age group in every state that has held a primary or caucus thus far with the exception of California, Arkansas, and Massachusetts. Among the combined sample of all young voters on Super Tuesday, Obama received 57% to Hillary Clinton’s 41%. Obama also had a 54%-43% advantage among the next youngest age group, those ages 30-44. Clinton led narrowly (51% to 46%) among those ages 45-59, and by a commanding 57% to 37% among Democratic voters 60 and older.

Obama’s vote percentage among the young was highest in states with significant black populations (Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, and Alabama) and in his home state of Illinois. Clinton did best among young people in her former home state of Arkansas, in Massachusetts, and in California, where strong support among Latino youth offset Obama’s advantage among white youth.

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Beyond the vote, the exit polls on Super Tuesday point to interesting differences — and similarities — between younger and older Democratic voters. Young Democratic voters are considerably more likely than their elders to be Hispanic, and slightly more likely to be black. They are more apt to say they have no religious affiliation (23% vs. 18% among those ages 30-44, 15% among those 45-59, 10% among those ages 60 and older), and more likely to say they are “liberal” in their political orientation.

But their attitudes on issues, and their orientations with respect to the ’08 campaign — other than their vote choice — are not very different from those of their elders. Younger and older Democratic voters are similar in the ratings they give to the national economy (overwhelmingly “not so good” or “poor”), in the percentage Democratic vs. independent, and when they say they made up their minds who to vote for in the election. They are no different in the importance they assign to gender and race in the vote. And their issue priorities are very similar to those of older voters. Notably, though younger voters were more likely to vote for Obama, comparable percentages of younger and older voters say they would be satisfied with each candidate.