Friday, December 14, 2012

2004: The year young people moved left

We all know that young people tend to vote Democratic, and tend to do it big.

But the question is -- when did that happen and why?

Well, in presidential elections, we didn't see this phenomenon until the 2004 election.

Prior to 2004, voters 18-24 years-old generally voted in line with other age groups. For example, young voters picked the winner of every election between 1980 and 2004 and by margins similar to other age groups.

But in 2004, something weird happened.

For the first time since exit poll data became available in 1976, young voters picked the losing nominee, and also picked that nominee by a HUGE margin.

John Kerry won voters 18-24 years old by 13%; whereas, George W. Bush won the election, overall, by 3%.

Contrast that with the 2000 election when 18-29 year-olds split evenly between Gore and Bush, and it gets your ears perked up.

Here's exit poll data from 1976-2004 from the Roper Center, and exit poll data from CNN in 2008 and 2012.

VOTERS 18-24 years-old:

2012: Obama 60% Romney 36%.

2008: Obama 66% McCain 32%.

2004: Kerry 56% Bush 43%.

2000: Gore 47% Bush 47%.

1996: Clinton 55% Dole/Perot 46%.

1992: Clinton 46% Bush 33%

In 1988, exit polls didn't break age group into 18-24 year old categories, but instead 18-29 year-old categories; thus, the following result is based on the 18-29 year-old group. 

1988: Bush 53% Dukakis 47%.

1984: Reagan 61% Mondale 39%.

Pre-1984, exit polls didn't break age group into 18-24 year old categories, but instead 18-21 year-old categories; thus, the following result is based on the 18-21 year-old group.

1980: Reagan/Anderson 55% Carter 45%.

1976: Ford 51% Carter 49%.

So you can see, young voters started tilting slightly stronger to the Democratic nominee than the general population in the 1990's, but they still picked the winner and by only a slightly more pro-Democratic margin than the overall population.

Then things evened out in 2000, relative to all age groups.

The huge gap between young voters and other age groups came with Bush vs. Kerry, and it continued through 2012.
So what's going on?

There are three possible explanations.

1. Demographics.

Minority birth rates have jumped dramatically in the past generation, minorities tend to be more liberal, and therefore, that would make the Democratic nominee's share of the pie get bigger.

(Remember it takes 18 years from birth to vote. Thus, anyone who was born after 1986 couldn't vote in the 2004 presidential election when Kerry swamped Bush with young people. So minority birth rates after 1986 didn't matter for 2004's vote).

In fact, ethnicity seems to be driving the trend. Black, youth turnout jumped by 15 percentage points between 2000 and 2004, and Latino turnout jumped 21 percentage points between 2000 and 2004.

And here's no doubt that the ethnic composition of young people played a role in 2008 and 2012.  In fact, in 2008, only 62% of voters in this age group were white.

Meanwhile, Romney won whites, 18-29 years-old, by 7%. Thus, Obama's huge 23% win with the group seems to be based heavily on ethinicity.

So with every cycle, young people grow more diverse and, therefore, more Democratic.

But the jump from the year 2000 to 2004 is so massive that it seems to beg for additional causes.

I'd like to suggest a few...

2. The War in Iraq.

In 2004, the war in Iraq was on the minds of many young people, and George W. Bush was the face, hands, and feet of that war.

According to 2004 exit polls, those listing the war in Iraq as the most important factor in their vote went for Kerry, 73%-26%.

It's fair to guess that quite a few of those were young people (unfortunately, the exit polls didn't dig that deeply, so it remains an assumption), and 73% who listed it as their top priority broke for Kerry.

Thus, youth opposition to the war could have contributed to the massive immigration to the Democratic party in 2004.

3. The Rise of the Internet.

It's no secret that Democrats pretty much owned the web during the first decade of the 21st century, and it's no secret that young people adopted the medium more quickly and fully than older generations.

Thus, between 2000 and 2004, you had the growth of a youth culture that interacted with the internet within a Democratic narrative.

And it's something you see to this day, albeit less overwhelmingly (For example MTV just put out the top Romney memes of the year, and every single one was brutally negative).

What popped online? Big Bird stuff, bayonets, binders full of women. All of that was damaging to Romney and Republicans, and none of that could have happened in the 1980's and 1990's.

Stuff like that has an impact -- no matter how ridiculous it seems or how ridiculous it sounds to say it.

Of course, all three of these explanations (demographics, the war, and the rise of the internet) could have contributed to the Kerry surge in 2004, and indeed, it looks like 2004 should be remembered as the year the youth fled the GOP for the Democratic party.

And between the demographic changes of young people and an internet culture based on political celebrity and viral memes, Democrats' domination with young people is likely to continue.