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Fears of a disengaged youth vote unfounded

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

To see how important a role young voters played in the re-election of President Obama, look only to the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. Had Mitt Romney won even half of the youth votes in those crucial states, it likely would have been Romney standing victorious as president-elect, according to a new analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a nonpartisan research institute that studies young people in politics.

“Confounding almost all predictions, the youth vote held up in 2012 and yet again was the deciding factor in determining which candidate was elected President of the United States,” said CIRCLE director Peter Levine, in a statement. “Young people are energized and committed voters. Youth turnout of around 50 percent is the ‘new normal’ for presidential elections. Considering that there are 46 million people between 18 and 29, this level of turnout makes them an essential political bloc. Right now, they form a key part of the Democrat’s national coalitioin. Republicans must find a way to compete for their votes.”

Predictions of a disengaged and disillusioned Millennial generation, compared to four years ago, were apparently unfounded. At least 49 percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted (between 22 and 23 million), on par with the last three elections and significantly higher than in 1996. What issue mattered most to them? The economy — namely, finding jobs, finding jobs for the future, college affordability, and health care.

Although young voters didn’t favor the president as overwhelmingly as they did in 2008, that loss of ground was made up by targeting and improving his share of votes in the battleground states, as this New York Times data show. The president’s share of the youth vote might not have been as lopsided this time around, but it was still decisive. He won 60 percent of the votes to Romney’s 37 percent, according to CIRCLE.

"The young people are having a much bigger impact in deciding outcomes," said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. She described the poltical motivations of the younger generation by their dual nature. "They’re very practical, but they have this bigger vision about the future. "