-- WASHINGTON — The percentage of Americans who voted in this year's historic presidential campaign appeared to reach the highest level in four decades.
About 133.3 million people cast ballots — or about 62.5% of the electorate, said Michael McDonald, a leading voter-turnout expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
That percentage, an estimate based on results tallied across the USA and projected absentee ballots, would equal the turnout rate in 1968, when the nation was torn by the Vietnam War. It could go higher, once all the ballots are counted and officially certified, McDonald said. He said turnout could equal or surpass 1964 when Americans elected Democrat Lyndon Johnson in a landslide less than a year after John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Turnout that year hit 62.8%.
"People were incredibly interested," McDonald said of Tuesday's election. "There were big issues facing the country, historic candidates and campaigns that had effective voter-mobilization efforts."
Other experts, such as Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, point out that an official count won't be known for weeks as California and other states collect absentee ballots. His turnout prediction is more conservative — between 126.5 million and 129 million.
The 2008 contest set these benchmarks:
• Voting by young people ages 18-29 jumped by more than 2 million over 2004 levels, according to Peter Levine, a youth-vote expert at Tufts University. Exit polls show voters younger than 30 supported Democrat Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. "They played a substantial role," Levine said.
• Black support for Obama, the first African-American elected to the presidency, helped tilt the election in his favor in key battlegrounds, said David Bositis, an expert on the black vote at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. For instance, nearly all black voters in Ohio — 97% — backed Obama, helping propel him to victory in a state captured by President Bush in 2004, Bositis said. Four years earlier, 84% of blacks in Ohio backed Democratic nominee John Kerry, he said.
• While voter turnout saw an uptick in many states, Republican-leaning states such as Wyoming and South Dakota saw a dip. "Cultural conservatives didn't see John McCain as one of their own," Gans said of the GOP nominee. "And Republicans may have looked at a landslide and wondered whether their vote would matter whatsoever."
No matter the final tally, the turnout in Tuesday's election — amid an economic meltdown and two foreign wars — is part of a steady climb in voter participation to levels not seen since the tumultuous late 1960s.
Donald Green, director of Yale University's Institution for Social and Policy Studies, said big voter-mobilization efforts by presidential campaigns helped drive voter turnout to 60.3% in 2004, up from 55.2% in 1984. The trend continued in this election, he said, as Obama used his fundraising prowess to fund get-out-the-vote efforts coast-to-coast.