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Youth vote helped elect Obama; Will it be as important in 2012?

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from the DES MOINES REGISTER 2/18/2011



According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 24 million people ages 18 to 24 voted in the 2008 presidential election, 51 percent of the group. More than 16 million (68 percent) of the 24 million voted for Obama, which made the difference in many close states. One of every seven voters nationwide was under 30. Headlines like MSNBC's trumpeted, "Youth Vote May Have Been Key in Obama's Win."

Iowa started the youth election phenomenon. Young people flooded the caucuses. In 2008, more than three times as many voters younger than 30 attended the Iowa caucuses, a record 13 percent, as the 4 percent in 2004. Seventeen percent of youth voters participated in 2008's primaries and caucuses. Voters younger than 30 made up 22 percent of Democratic caucus attendees and 11 percent of Republican caucus attendees.

Will youth be as important in the 2012 presidential election as they were in 2008? Will they turn out as heavily at the outset in Iowa, and will they be as supportive of Obama now that they've seen him in action and not just as the promising candidate?

If not, and if the turnout is lower the next go-round, the results could be quite different.

The highest percentage of eligible youth who actually voted remains the 52 percent during the 1972 presidential election. The 2008 election had the second-largest youth turnout (51 percent); and 1992 won by Bill Clinton the third-largest (48 percent). To encourage the youth vote in 1972, Democratic organizers aggressively campaigned for young turnout with posters, charts and youth ambassadors in every state and congressional district. Young voters, who had just received voting rights in 1971, registered and voted because they did not want to be killed in the Vietnam War, and they detested the draft's threat to them. Without the war and the draft, we would not have had such a large youth voter turnout.

However, there are other overarching issues that young people care about today. Issue No. 1: their post-high school or college job. Unemployment is now 9 percent nationally.

College tuitions, another big youth issue, are also at record highs. The average in-state tuition of a four-year public college is $7,605 - and student loans now cover far less of the cost. Private colleges - now costing $40,000 to $50,000 - are out of range and becoming havens for rich and foreign students with money. Obama took some helpful steps - removing banks from the student loan business and increasing Pell Grants by a third. He budgeted $129 billion in new grants, loans and work-study. But with the United States fading from No. 1 to No. 9 in college graduation percentage worldwide, is it enough? And was Republican opposition to the student loan changes persuasive to keep youth for Obama?

In 2008, a number of young celebrities supported Obama with T-shirts and songs. The Obama girl didn't hurt, either. Not only did kids think Obama was cool, he was against the war. He since pulled troops out of Iraq when he said he would.

Bill Clinton played the saxophone on TV. He was perceived as vibrant and active. Should our next set of presidential candidates answer the ever-important boxers or briefs question? Should they play the saxophone or similar? Yes on both accounts.

The campaign is about to begin. The primaries and caucuses are one year away. Presidential candidates must engage the crucial youth vote in the 2012 election. It worked for Obama in 2008 - he even attended an Usher event. Show concern and action on youth issues, understand and enjoy their culture - and you just might pull it off again.

ROBERT WEINER, a former Clinton White House senior staff member, was the youth voter registration director for National Young Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

CAITLIN HARRISON, 22, a 2010 college graduate, is a policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates.



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