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Clinton Won Nevada Without Youth Vote

Photo credit: Lauren Burke, WDCPix

In the battle to court young voters in Nevada, Sen. Barack Obama (D–IL) emerged victorious at Saturday’s caucus for the Democratic presidential nomination. But it was not enough for him to overcome Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D–NY) advantage among older voters and women, who carried the New York senator to a 51 percent to 45 percent victory over her rival.

According to polling data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), more than 15,000 young voters participated in the Democratic caucus on Jan. 19, a dramatic increase over turnout in 2004, when only 9,000 Nevadans – young and old – took part. Obama won 59 percent to 33 percent among voters aged 18–29, recapturing a solid base of support that seemed shaky after he lost to Clinton among 25–29 year-olds in the New Hampshire primary.

Despite those gains in Nevada turnout, young voters wielded significantly less influence there than in previous contests this year. That proved a detriment to the Obama campaign.

While young voters make up 22 percent of eligible voters in Nevada, CIRCLE estimated they were only 13 percent of caucus-goers on Saturday. This was a sharp decrease from Iowa and New Hampshire, where young voters were 22 percent and 18 percent of the electorate, respectively. In comparison, voters older than 60 made up 36 percent of the electorate on Saturday.

Youth organizers, who spent weeks—and in the case of the Nevada Young Democrats, months—in the state educating young voters about the caucus process, were quick to point out a number of mitigating factors that may account for the smaller turnout. Most significantly, they note that attention from the presidential campaigns, which ramped up in the week leading up to the caucus, came too little, too late. Campaigns were on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire for months, and the candidates themselves visited the states more than 100 times. This was not the case in Nevada, where the leading candidates were all but absent until recently.

The start time of the caucus, which required that participants be in line by noon, may also have played a role in the lower youth turnout. Many young people in Nevada work night shifts. "I talked to a number of young voters who expressed their frustration," said David Hardt, president of the Young Democrats of America, who was in Nevada to observe the caucus. He continued, "The caucus didn’t allow anyone who works nights the opportunity to be part of the process."

Youth advocates also noted that organizing students in Nevada can be difficult. Many local colleges and universities are commuter schools, dispersing the youth population and complicating canvassing efforts. Another problem they cited was that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, one of the largest schools in the state, will not be back in session until Jan 22.

Despite these challenges, the youth organizers interviewed all insisted that young Nevadans made a generational statement in favor of change in their support for Obama. Many asserted that, despite smaller turnout, young voters are still playing a big role.

“It is clear young people are keeping Obama competitive’" said Jane Fleming Kleeb, the executive director of the Young Voter PAC, "they are much more excited by Democrats overall.”

That may be true. Young voters, along with African-Americans, Independents and secular voters, were one of the few demographics to overwhelmingly support Obama over Clinton. They helped the Illinois senator emerge from the Silver State with something of a win—or at least a tie. Though Clinton captured the popular vote, because of the way the caucuses are weighted, Obama will take 13 delegates to the Democratic Convention, compared to Clinton’s 12. Candidates need 2,208 delegates to secure the nomination.

Kleeb is also right that young voters are supporting the Democratic candidates in greater numbers than the Republicans. The number of young people participating in the Democratic caucus was more than triple that of the GOP caucus. This continued a trend seen in previous states, and is consistent with youth voting trends in national elections since 2004.

According to research by CIRCLE, in the 2004 general election, younger voters chose Sen. John Kerry (D–MA), the Democratic nominee, over President George W. Bush 54–45 percent. In the 2006 midterm, young voters chose Democratic candidates over GOP candidates by the even greater margin, 60–38 percent. More recently, youth participation in the Iowa Democratic caucus was four times as large as that in the Republican caucus; and in New Hampshire Democratic youth turnout was almost double Republican turnout.

Young Nevadans who did participate in the Republican caucus overwhelmingly chose former Gov. Mitt Romney, who captured 50 percent of the GOP youth vote. Romney went on to win the Republican caucus. Rep. Ron Paul (R–TX) came in second, with 15 percent of the youth vote, and 14 percent of the total vote.

Youth support among the Republican candidates remains more divided than on the Democratic side. Young conservative voters in different states have thrown their support behind three different candidates. In Iowa, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. captured the youth vote – potentially on a wave of young evangelical support. In New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain (R–AZ) won the youth vote with support from young Independents. Romney has now twice captured young conservative voters—first in Michigan and now in Nevada.

Overall, young voters continue to play a smaller role in the GOP nominating process than on the Democratic side. Young Republicans made up a smaller share of the Republican electorate than their Democratic peers in all the previous states.

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