Study: Obama's Youth Support Slips From 2008, But Still Crucial To Victory

PHOTO: Student clerk Tua Her offers stickers to voters at a fire station in Stockton, Calif. Young voters who are less likely to be engaged in other election cycles are being credited with making the difference this year in CaliforniaMarcio Jose Sanchez, File/AP Photo
This Nov. 6, 2012 file photo shows student clerk Tua Her offering stickers to voters at a fire station in Stockton, Calif. Young voters who are less likely to be engaged in other election cycles are being credited with making the difference this year in California

Young voters did not support President Barack Obama as strongly as they did in 2008, but according to a new study, they still played a significant role in his re-election effort.

Overall, 60 percent of voters under the age of 30 voted for Obama compared to 36 percent who voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. His 24-percentage point advantage was ten points less than his 2008 margin of victory among young voters, according to a study of national exit poll data by the Pew Research Center. But just as many young people voted in 2012 as they did four years ago and his strong performance among young voters in key swing states helped him make up for a drop in support from voters over the age of 30.

Voters between the ages of 18 to 29 comprised 19 percent of the electorate this year compared to 18 percent in 2008. And the so-called "age gap" between voters above and below the age of 30 again reached double digits for only the third time in the past 40 years (the other elections being 2008 and 1972). Less than half of voters over 30 (48 percent) voted for Obama this year, compared to 50 percent in 2008.

That trend was evident in battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, where half or more of voters supported Romney over Obama. But in each state the president won 60 percent or more of the youth vote.

Youth voters may have played their most influential role in Florida. Obama won the state by a narrow margin of roughly 74,300 votes out of 8.47 million cast, and at the same time he increased his youth support five percentage points from 2008 to 66 percent. Romney's 32 percent share of young voters in Florida was also down five points from John McCain's 2008 total.

Overall, young voters have more liberal views on issues than the general electorate. Nearly six in ten support a more expanded role for government compared to 51 percent of all voters who say the government is doing too much. And nearly two-thirds of young voters say their state should recognize gay marriage compared just under half (49 percent of all voters).

But Obama's six percentage-point dip in youth support was mainly driven by whites, men, and independents, the same groups among voters over 30 who largely abandoned him in favor of Romney. His support among whites under 30 dropped 10 percentage points from 2008, and 51 percent of young white voters ended up supporting Romney (That's quite a decline, since 54 percent backed Obama in 2008).

In the end, Obama's strong support among young black and Latino voters helped him stave off significant erosion in support from young voters. Only 58 percent of voters under the age of 30 identify as white, non-Hispanic, according to Pew. Eighteen percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are black, and 7 percent describe themselves as mixed race. By comparison, 76 percent of voters 30 and older are white.

In the wake of his defeat, Romney blamed his loss on Obama's so-called "gifts" to his core supporters, including Latinos, blacks, and young people. But in order to achieve future success, Republican candidates will need to learn to appeal to an electorate that's being shaped by an influx of racially and ethnically diverse younger voters.