President Obama's prospects this year were supposed to be jeopardized by the specter of a steep dip in support among key components of his 2008 base, most notably voters younger than 30. But on Election Day, young voters again proved to be a huge part of the president's coalition.
Exit polls on Tuesday indicated that voters from 18 to 29 years old comprised 19 percent of the national electorate, a modest 1-point uptick since 2008 but one that defies the pre-election conventional wisdom that Obama would be left at the altar by young voters.
To be sure, Obama carried the youngest voting bloc by a narrower margin than he did four years ago, shifting from a 34-point drubbing over Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2008 to a 23-point win over Mitt Romney on Tuesday.
But exit polls also showed that Obama's level of support among young voters in four prized battleground states was largely the same as it was four years ago. Obama won the group by at least 25 points in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania this time. His only decline among young voters occurred in Pennsylvania, where his margin slipped only slightly from 30 to 28 points. The president's gap actually widened since 2008 in Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), told TPM in an email that Obama's performance may well have put him over the top in those states, all of which were decided by 5 points or fewer overall. A winner has not yet been declared in Florida, although Obama continues to hold a persistent lead.
Levine said that despite Romney exceeding McCain's paltry showing in 2008, the Republican nominee's vote share among younger voters was still "pretty miserable." Obama's slimmer margins, Levine noted, are likely attributable to young, white voters defecting to Romney. Obama lost among white voters by 20 points overall.
"This was just a few of (sic) points above the worst showing in the history of the youth vote, McCain's 34% in 2008," Levine wrote, adding that it represents a potentially foreboding development for Republicans.
"People do change their minds, and parties change their policies and brands," Levine said. "But unless the GOP improves its reputation among the 46 million Millennials, Republicans are looking at becoming a minority party."
Levine admitted that the impressive turnout among young voters caught him off guard. A study released last week by CIRCLE pointed to a young electorate that was decidedly less enthusiastic than it was when it first helped sweep Obama into office. He said that young people probably were actually less enthused this year, but that "persistence or commitment" to voting overcompensated for diminished intensity.
"I think almost everyone, me included, expected turnout to decline," Levine wrote. "Youth turnout--meaning the proportion of young people who voted--looks exactly on par with 2008. But to stay even is surprisingly good."