Youthful Election Postmortem

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

With two of every three young voters under 30 years old voting for Barack Obama, a great deal has been made of the 2008 youth vote in recent weeks. Leading progressives speaking at the Center for American Progress (CAP) recently concluded that this generation’s overwhelming support for Obama represents not only a “sea change” toward progressive ideology, but an opportunity to coopt these voters’ youthful energy on behalf of causes such as global warming and universal healthcare.

The youth vote has historically voted similarly to other demographics within the overall American electorate, noted Katt Barr, the political outreach director for Rock the Vote. “In general they vote, just maybe slightly one way or the other different, but about similar to the overall electorate,” she said at the CAP meeting, continuing “so it’s really quite striking and when you look at some of the state-by-state races, particularly Indiana and North Carolina, Virginia, you can see that in those states where people also voted two-to-one for Senator Obama, and the margin of victory in the states that have been called is so small that it’s clear that young people made the difference…”

Lennox Yearwood Jr., President of the Hip Hop Caucus, described the youth support behind Obama as solutionary, rather than revolutionary, and exclaimed at how the American people had “organized themselves” this year. He said,

“We didn’t have to do parties, voting parties just emerged in the streets of this country because the people—it became a movement. People were organizing themselves and it was because they wanted to see a change.”

This change, he argues, manifested itself as a post-partisan movement allying Democrats and Republicans alike in a pursuit similar to the civil rights movement. But this “civil rights” initiative had a decidedly economic tone. “You can’t keep spending billions for a war and not have books in your school. You can’t have your grandmother not have health care, and you’re bailing out Wall Street,” Yearwood Jr. argued. He continued,

“They knew and so what you saw on the fourth was as close to what we saw in the civil rights movement, but also for young people what we saw is that we weren’t revolutionary, we weren’t like ‘we gotta go get a gun and stand outside’—what you saw on the fourth was moving from revolutionary to solutionary. Our generation was like we need change and we need to see it right now and they went forward, Republican and Democrat—They were lockstep because they knew that it had to be a difference. You saw a movement as well as an election, on the fourth.”

The Hip Hop Caucus campaigns on behalf of a variety of causes, including the “total elimination of poverty,” the restoration of felons’ voting rights, the repeal of “repressive legislation” such as minimum sentencing and the “three strikes laws,” and the creation of a progressive “Nu America.” Interestingly, the CAP website does not list Lennox Jr. as a speaker on the panel, but includes the names and biographies of the other speakers.

Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter for, argued that the election couldn’t be considered a referendum on conservative values because “I as a conservative do not believe that the economic policies were rejected because I do not think that the party has been true to those policies for a long time.” She continued, “And in terms of why the Barack Obama message worked with the youth more, which goes into what David [Madland] said, there’s a lot of anxiety about the economy and Obama did a wonderful job tying the war to the economy in terms of spending.”

All panelists agreed that the economy was a significant factor in the election, but David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at CAP, finds that in terms of economic issues, Millennial voters reliably swing left. He said that this generation will “very likely will be the first generation to not be as well off as their parents.” With low, stagnant wages, college debt, and no health care, Madland considers it natural for young voters to be dissatisfied with the current economy.

“Amanda, I appreciate that you’re here because I know when I have to do the opposite, be sort of the voice in the wilderness. It’s a hard position to be in,” he said. But, Madland argues, the 2008 election demonstrates that today’s millennials clearly reject “the conservative economic viewpoint that’s been in power for the past eight years.” According to Madland’s research, the Millennial Generation, ages 18-29, are more progressive on economic issues than any previous generation was during its youth, especially within issues such as

1. union membership;
2. universal healthcare; and
3. higher education spending predicated on higher taxes.

Madland’s study, “The Progressive Generation,” analyzed Millennial’s political positions in each generation using General Social Survey (GSS), National Election Study (NES) and Pew Research Center data. However, as Accuracy in Academia has documented, the study relied on shoddy research methods including samples with high margins of error and omitting pertinent information. When this correspondent asked pollster Scott Rasmussen whether the small (150 to 300 respondent) sample sizes used within this study reflected good scholarship, he replied, “Practically speaking, I would never do that.”

Carpenter challenged the speakers’ assumptions that Obama’s election signified a progressive shift for young voters, asserting that key conservative issues such as immigration and gay marriage were downplayed by both candidates during the general election.

“If anything Barack Obama ran against George Bush on the economy and the war,” she argued. Carpenter said that she doesn’t “know how long Barack Obama can blame the Bush Administration. When that runs out, he’ll have some work to do.”

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.