Other than the uncertainty around the economy, the question that will decide the presidential election is will young people come out and vote for Barack Obama in large numbers.
Factoring in the actual level of participation of young voters on election day – not just judging that Obama has momentum due to the appearance of large numbers of enthusiastic college age and post-college age voters at rallies – has given fits to pollsters and political prognosticators this year. Hillary Clinton’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, for example, defied pre-election polls that pointed to a victory by Obama. Polling, a practice that has been at the heart of American campaigns and journalism is under pressure right now. Voter sophistication, the ubiquity of cell phones, the internet – all of these have made voting habits harder to measure right now, particularly for younger voters.
Into the fray steps pollster John Zogby, who is out with “The Way We’ll Be,” a study of the opinions of voters aged 18 to 29. Zogby, who is the head of his own polling company, Zogby International, contends in the book that these new voters will change America. More pressingly he says they have the power to swing the election.
“Young people will be at least at that 17% [of the vote.] There is reason to believe they could move up a couple of percentage points. It would be a significant boon for Obama,” Zogby told me.
Regarding that New Hampshire result, where Zogby’s poll had Obama defeating Mrs. Clinton by 13% on election day, the pollster said the problem in the findings was not that young people failed to vote. “They came out to vote in New Hampshire. Older women were energized to vote in greater numbers for Hillary,” he said, adding another twist. “Independents of all ages who were inclined to vote for Obama, upon feeling that Obama was going to win in large enough numbers, went and voted for McCain.”
Unlike prior election cycles, such as 1980 and 1984 when Ronald Reagan captured the youth vote over his Democratic opponents, younger voters this year are tracking heavily toward the Democratic candidate. Even the addition of the youngish governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, has failed to blunt Obama’s appeal to young voters, Zogby said.
“The one clear thing that Sarah Palin did is solidify the base of the Republican Party for John McCain,” said Zogby, noting that the ticket gained the backing of 91% of Republicans after Ms. Palin’s selection, “the same numbers that George W. Bush emerged from his election with.”
Zogby refers to the younger voting demographic as “the First Globals” because of their worldwide perspective. When researching his book he was struck by the fact that 56% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 possessed passports as compared to general population, where that number is in the 30s. He added that that generational difference exists in both Republican and Democratic states and is magnified by the internet. “These kids are the most socially networked,” he said. “Their peers are not their classmates. Their peers are anywhere in the world.”
Here’s where the trouble comes in for pollsters and anyone trying to gain a handle on the opinions of young people: many, if not most, don’t have traditional land telephone lines upon which professional pollsters have relied for decades.
While Zogby asserted that poll numbers for young voters with land lines are identical to those with cell phones, he did acknowledge that it was a growing problem. “The telephone is getting more troublesome for us,” he said. “Internet polling is the wave of the future.”
Typically, internet polls are as worthless. Enthusiasts can find ways to vote multiple times and distort results. Zogby maintained he takes painstaking effort to generate a new kind of reliable internet poll. He starts with a group of “hundreds of thousands” of names, and then sends e-mail queries to a random list of around 50,000. Interested respondents reply to questions on a secure website, the responses to which are then mathematically weighted. To assure the authenticity of the responses, workers at Zogby’s call center attempt to validate a percentage of the participants over the telephone. The response rate, he said, is comparable to telephone polling.
The ultimate poll will be on November 4, Election Day. Eight years ago, just after having published a widely-reported poll that showed Vice President Gore beating George W. Bush by one percentage point in the popular vote, Zogby received a phone call from Gore, who had a question for the pollster, he writes in his book. “ ‘Am I going to win?’” Gore asked Zogby. “I don’t know,’ ” Zogby conceded. Polls suggest that this year’s contests looks almost as close. Young voters could be the difference.