Historically, young people have been much less likely to vote than older Americans.
That trend has started to change in the past few presidential election cycles, especially in 2008, when a census report found that 49 percent of those ages 18 to 24 who were eligible to vote participated in the presidential election.
While still significantly lower than the overall voter participation rate of 64 percent, the youngest demographic was the only age group to show a statistically significant jump in 2008 participation, the census reported.
But will the trend continue this year? And if so, who benefits?
“We see signs in early polling that young people are not as engaged now as they were in the same time four years ago,” says Scott Keeter, an analyst at the Pew Research Center.
Briana Drayton, 18, a student at the University of Maryland, seems to agree.
“I’m just not very into politics and I think that it would require a lot more research and looking into issues that I don’t think that I have the passion for,” says Drayton. “So I wouldn’t want to vote and, like, not be completely informed.”
But another Maryland student, Caroline Carlson, 19, attended a recent campus rally for presidential candidate Ron Paul and called the rally “an enlightening experience.”
Whom young voters support in 2012 could be an important factor in the outcome of the presidential race.
“The recession has been very, very tough on young people in particular,” says Keeter. “People entering the job market in [these] last four years have had a very hard time getting work and getting good work — and that has tended to dampen their enthusiasm for Barack Obama and for the Democrats in general.”
Obama’s campaign and that of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney are eager to recruit young voters.
Adviser Lanhee Chen says Romney plans to promote his economic message on college campuses nationwide. “This is really gonna resonate with younger Americans because they’ve really been hit hard by the difficulty that we’ve seen in the economy during President Obama’s term,” says Chen.
The Obama campaign is reminding young voters about the president’s health care law and how it helps young people, as well as Obama’s repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which means that gay service members now can serve openly.
“It is really about educating young people on what the president has done for them over the last four years,” says Valeisha Butterfield-Jones, the Obama campaign’s national youth vote director.
Pew’s Keeter points out that Obama could have won without the youth vote in 2008.
“That was an election that he won by a relatively comfortable margin. Everybody thinks, despite the early polling right now that shows [Obama] with a reasonably good-sized lead, that this is going to be a very close election,” says Keeter.
And in a close election, Keeter says, everybody’s vote matters.