Can Barack Obama win with the Youth Vote?
That has been the assumption that many pundits have made, and it's a mistake. He can't win with the Youth Vote alone. Why not?
Well, for starters there are not that many youths around. Remember the Baby Bust? Too many pundits, and I suspect Barack Obama's campaign advisors, remember the Youth Vote in 1968. Which for all it's sound and fury, didn't stop Richard Milhous Nixon from being elected President of the United States. Or being re-elected in 1972, over Youth favorite, George McGovern.
But, as Emilio Estevez said, that was then, this is now. Pundits now tell us the Youth Vote is fired up, highly motivated. Even though of course, for all the Iraq War's unpopularity, there is no draft, only an all-volunteer military, and the Iraq War has disappeared from TV screens and newspaper headlines. Doubtless because the progress, unsteady as it is, both embarrasses the pundits and doesn't help Democrats, who opposed the Surge and predicted it's failure.
The Youth Vote is supposed to be a tidal wave of new voters. This time, we're told, it will be different. Obama inspires Youth voters into a messianic frenzy. They'll turn out in record numbers, registering to vote and making sure their peers do as well.
But ... how big is the Youth Vote, really?
To find out, I went to the handy US Census Bureau. They have 2006 statistics available on the web right here
You can see the graph I made out of the data provided here:
It turns out, there's not that many Youth Voters. There's 42 million of the "Youth Vote" which I defined as 17-26. The next biggest group is people in their Thirties and Forties, which is 84 million strong. That's twice the Youth Vote folks. Then we have people in their forties and fifties, who are 61.5 million in total. Finally, we have Seniors, in their Sixties or older. There are 50.6 million Seniors.
Here is an aggregation graph of the populations (note that data is from 2006, so two years have been added to normalize the data for 2008):
Yes, Seniors outnumber the Youth Vote by about 8 million. Unlike the Youth Vote, which has never yet participated in elections in large numbers, Seniors vote. Astonishingly high percentages of seniors both register to vote, and then vote in each election. Do we have any data for this? Why yes we do. Again, the US Census Bureau is quite helpful with data from the 2004 election, here.
As you can see, young people just don't vote. They register to vote at only 51.5%, and actually show up at the polls at 41.9%. Both registration and voting steadily increase as people get older. This makes sense. Young people are most concerned with dating and socializing. It's where most of their energy and time are directed. Older people have fewer social concerns, and are more likely to be imbued with civic responsibility.
But there are other differences as well. Young people, with few responsibilities, and no real concerns over a draft, are relatively immune one way or another to what government does. Their main concerns are their own relative positions in the dating and relationship market, do they have the right clothes, musical tastes, movie tastes, and politics to succeed? People with houses, mortgages, children and families to consider have a much greater risk in terms of interest rates, crime, schools, the stock market, returns on their 401Ks, and so on. Elderly people on fixed incomes lack social and physical mobility. They are extraordinarily sensitive to crime, and inflation. A retiree of 72 is not going to be trading in his perfectly good car or SUV which is paid for, in order to tool around in a Prius. For one thing, he can't afford it.
I am so far not impressed with Obama's campaign. True, he leads in the polls, but Democrats always do in this stage of the campaign (after the nominations have been secured, before the conventions). Media hype about the "New Prince" whether it's Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, or Kerry always tilt the opinion polls. More times than not, however, voters choose Republican. Why?
Security. Older voters crave stability and security. "Hope and Change" are attractive to younger voters who are small in number, and participate less, than older voters. Messages that Obama, and traditionally most Democrats save Bill Clinton, have aimed at the electorate seem to assume that the electorate is the same demographics as say, "Gossip Girl" on the CW, which pulls in about 2 million viewers a week. Messages aimed at younger voters of course tend to repel older ones. Older voters want ever lower crime, as they can't run away from criminals or move away. They must have lower gas prices, a retiree with a walker is not going to be biking to the market. They don't care about social positioning, and often resent it, being self-consciously "uncool" and "unhip."
Obama so far has come out in favor of higher gas prices, and higher electricity prices, as necessary to combat Global Warming. Something near and dear to the College Kid crowd but irrelevant to middle aged and senior voters. He's complained about the number of young Black Men in prison, and Bush's aggressive measures at home (wiretapping Jihadis) and abroad (Iraq, anti-Iran sentiment). Young people and the Media like these messages, for older voters the messages incline them to vote for McCain.
America is an older nation already, and much of the Media and Obama's campaign don't understand this reality. McCain, all things being equal, is likely to win in November from demographics alone.