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Young voters hold a lot of sway

Updated: December 14, 2012 6:28AM

Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka was doing a post-election interview on WBEZ radio last week when host Tony Sarabia turned the subject to the comparatively lower turnout of young voters compared to older voters.

Sarabia asked if young people don’t vote because they feel their message is not being heard.

“No,” Topinka shot back. “They don’t vote because very often they’re lazy, and they’re too busy playing with their little machines . . . They’re just too in tune with texting and not in tune with what’s going on around them.”

I realize Topinka was just trying to get off a good wisecrack, but her comment may help explain why most of the young people who did vote continued to turn away from the Republican Party last week — as Democrats used those “little machines” to successfully court the youth vote.

That’s funny because Topinka strikes me as the kind of Republican who could attract young voters inasmuch as she might remind them of their favorite crazy old aunt.

What a lot of people may not realize is that young voters — defined as ages 18 to 29 — comprised nearly one in five people who cast a presidential ballot in last week’s election, and if just half of them had picked Mitt Romney in the states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the Republican nominee could be planning his transition right now.

That’s according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which tracks national exit polls, demographic data and vote counts to estimate turnout rates of young voters.

Instead of a split, President Barack Obama got 60 percent of the youth vote to Romney’s 37 percent, which isn’t quite as strong a showing as Obama made against John McCain four years ago but good enough to make a case that young voters again played a key role in helping him win the election.

You can slice and dice the election returns hundreds of ways to show that this group or that was the key to winning, and when the results are as close as they were last week, all of them could be correct.

But young voters belong in that conversation along with women, Latinos and African Americans.

As Topinka suggested, young people continue to lag behind their elders in going to the polls, with a turnout of only 50 percent of the eligible 18- to 29-year-olds, according to Circle’s estimate.

But that’s still 23 million voters, which makes young people a powerful voting bloc to be taken seriously, said Circle director Peter Levine at Tufts University.

The turnout of young voters was even greater in the swing states at 58 percent, Levine said.

That makes three elections in a row with young voter turnout in the 50 percent range, about what it was in the 1970s and 1980s before a big falloff in the 1990s.

Some of you may assume, as I did, that young people pretty much always favor the Democrats.

But as recently as the 2000 election, the youth vote was almost a tossup between Al Gore and George W. Bush, with Gore doing only slightly better.

And Republican candidates carried the 18-to-29 demographic in three of five elections from 1972 to 1988 with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as the recipients, according to a Circle analysis.

That suggests that Republicans can’t afford to write off another generation of young voters or even give up on the one that helped bring Obama to power as it gets older.

“Each generation has had a different character. This one is starting off liberal,” Levine said. “I don’t think we know if the Democratic tilt will stay.”

Jeremy Rose, 27, a Chicago-based Republican political consultant just back from his campaign trail duties with the Romney advance team, said he believes the GOP can still connect with young voters by focusing on the “issues the next generation cares about” — with the economy and jobs at the top of the list.

“I just don’t think our party has done a good job communicating that and emphasizing that,” instead allowing itself to get “sidetracked on issues not important to us,” Rose said.

Brian Brady, executive director of the Mikva Foundation, which engages Chicago high school students in the political process, said the question now is: Can young adults turn their voting power into issue power and force candidates to be more responsive to their issues?

“They’re not the AARP yet,” Brady said.

Give them 21 to 32 more years, and they will be.

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