The Generational Turnout War

Michael P. McDonald
Michael P. McDonald Former Brookings Expert, Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Florida

January 4, 2008

Senator Barack Obama’s Iowa victory has been largely attributed to his success among young voters.  According to the entrance polls, not only did he win an outright majority of the youth vote, the 24-and-under crowd also turned out to vote with unusual strength.

Can he do it again in New Hampshire and beyond?

The Iowa caucuses are unusual in three key respects when it comes to mobilization of young voters and their influence on the election outcome.

First, Obama and the other candidates have spent the last year building impressive organizations within Iowa to mobilize their supporters.  In this decade, campaigns have retooled their get-out-the-vote efforts to emphasize person-to-person contact, which has been demonstrated to significantly increase turnout among all voters.  Turnout in both parties’ caucuses—particularly the record 236,000 on the Democratic side—benefited from peaked voter interest and this new campaign tactic.

Unlike previous efforts to mobilize young voters by concerts and celebrities, young voters are particularly energized when encouraged to vote by their peers.  Obama’s campaign specifically tailored mobilization efforts to young voters.  It clearly worked, as the youth were a larger share of caucus attendees than they were four years ago.

Second, the caucuses occur in the evening when people with families, and/or working night shifts, are unable to participate.  The caucuses favor turnout among people who have time on their hands, like students who have yet to return to college from their winter break. 

Third, despite the historically high turnout on the Democratic side of the Iowa caucuses, the caucuses are still low-turnout affairs, with only about 16 percent of eligible Iowans participating on January 3.  Where organization and time can galvanize youth relative to other Iowa caucus attendees, it is highly unlikely that young voters will be as large a share of the electorate in primary states like New Hampshire where more people participate simply because voting is less burdensome.

These factors suggest that Obama will be disadvantaged in upcoming elections. 

But surprisingly, no; it is Hillary Clinton who will be disadvantaged because of the age of her supporters.

Where Obama’s support comes from the youth, Clinton’s comes from the elderly.  She was just shy of winning a majority of their vote in the Iowa caucuses.

Like the youth, the elderly also traditionally constitute a larger share of Iowa caucus attendees than of primary voters.  Older Americans are habitual voters and have time on their hands.

When candidate support among the different ages of Iowa caucus attendees are applied to the age distribution of the 2004 New Hampshire Democratic primary electorate, support for Obama and John Edwards rises, while support for Clinton actually decreases. 

Obama’s strength among people in their 30’s—a demographic he also won—will likely pack a larger wallop among the larger New Hampshire electorate, offsetting the youth’s lower share of the electorate.

Edwards, who eked out a win among middle-aged voters, benefits from their higher turnout. Edward’s attacks on Clinton following Iowa make strategic sense. He believes that if he can become the alternative to Obama, Clinton’s older supporters will flock to him, setting up all out generational war on the Democratic side.

Clinton sees her elderly support base diminish, and it is not replenished with fresh voters elsewhere.

Of course, the situation is still fluid.  2008 is not 2004, New Hampshire is not Iowa and we have yet to see where Joe Biden’s and Chris Dodd’s supporters go now that those contenders are out. 

Yet, Obama’s eggs are not all in one basket.  He does not need to rely on young voters solely to win New Hampshire; he just needs them to be as animated as they were in Iowa to add to his support among their slightly older peers. 

On the Republican side, we have to look back eight years to the last contested Republican nomination to understand what increased youth turnout means to the election outcome. It does not appear to be much. The age profile of the Republican Iowa 2000 electorate looks similar to that of 2008, with the exception that the 2008 Republican electorate is more middle-aged. When the Republican contest moved from the Iowa caucuses to the New Hampshire primary in 2000, the age profile remained relatively steady with the exception that the share of the electorate of those in their 30’s increased while those 60 and older decreased.

Mike Huckabee won every age demographic category in 2008, but so did George W. Bush in 2000. John McCain came roaring back from an Iowa fifth place finish in 2000 to win New Hampshire and is poised to do so again. The difference between Iowa and New Hampshire Republican electorates is more about their ideologies rather than their ages.

There may still be something to learn from the age distribution of support for the Republican candidates. McCain drew his support in 2000 and from middle-aged and older voters, who together will likely make up a majority of the New Hampshire Republican electorate. Will he do it again in 2008?

Looking past Huckabee’s Iowa’s support, McCain and Mitt Romney both drew more support from older voters. There are thus three candidates vying for votes from older New Hampshire independents, who may choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary: McCain, Romney, and Clinton. This may favor Obama, too, as his independent supporters are not faced with the same difficult choice of which primary to vote in as Clinton’s are.