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Obama and the Youth Vote

In an article in today’s New York Post, I argue that Barack Obama actually does have a pretty good likelihood of increasing youth turnout — and that, moreover, such voters may be undercounted in the polls:

Indeed, youth turnout rates in recent elections have been downright pathetic. In 1972, the first year 18-year-olds had the right to vote, nearly half of citizens aged 18-24 turned out to the ballot box. But by 1976, with the Vietnam War off the table, the turnout rate plummeted to 42%. It has since fallen as low as 32% in 2000 before rebounding slightly in 2004.

Barack Obama is hoping to do a lot better than that – and unlike so many of his predecessors, there are signs that he may actually succeed. In 2004, voters aged 29 or younger represented 9% of the Democratic primary electorate, according to statistics compiled from exit polls. In 2008, that fraction jumped to 14%, representing a 52% improvement as a share of the electorate. Those voters overwhelmingly favored Obama, preferring him to Hillary Clinton by a 60-37 margin.

After re-reading my piece, however, it occurs to me that some of the strategies I proscribe for Obama facilitating the youth vote might be problematic with other sets of voters. Consider this one, for instance:

Branding. One way to pierce young voters’ attention barrier is to market yourself like the products they love. And this is something the Obama campaign understands exceptionally well – the importance of OBAMA™. From the elegant serif font on their website to their use (and occasional overuse) of the campaign’s logo to their Madison Avenue-like slogans, the Obama campaign distances itself from the stodgy, haphazard presentation of a traditional political campaign. Obama is the Mac to John McCain’s PC.

Isn’t this part of what John McCain is critiquing with his ‘celebrity’ commercials? That Obama is too slick, too prepackaged? The ad campaign is, in part, a generational dog-whistle.

This doesn’t mean that Obama should back down from such strategies. The Obama campaign has recently had a tendency to run away and hide whenever it encounters resistance, which is exactly the wrong approach. But it does mean that the campaign is going to have to try and reach multiple groups of voters through multiple channels — by, for instance, producing several different ads concurrently, and running them on different networks to cater to particular demographics.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.