Articles and Analysis


Age, Turnout and Votes


It's all about who votes. Those that do win. Those that don't lose. The chronic losers in American politics are the young who famously turn out at low rates election after election.

This year, those young people are of great interest. Allegedly they will be mobilized in huge numbers, and allegedly they will vote strongly for Barack Obama. The latest available Gallup weekly estimate (July 28-Aug 3) shows Obama leading 56%-35% among 18-29 year olds, while McCain leads 46%-37% among those 65 and older.

But will the young vote? And how much difference does it make when they don't?

The chart above shows the turnout rate by age for 2000 and 2004, based on the Census Bureau's "Current Population Survey (CPS)", the largest and best source of detailed data on turnout. The most striking result is just how low turnout is among those under 30 compared to older voters. No age group 18-29 managed to reach 45% turnout in 2000, and only two made it in 2004. Not one single age group over 30 fell so low in either year. Despite a little noise for each group, the pattern is a strong rise in participation rates with every year of age at least until the late 60s, after which there is some decline. Yet even among those 85 and over the turnout rate remains above 55%, more then 10 points higher than among their 20-something grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The second striking feature of the chart is that the young can be mobilized a bit, under the right circumstances. Turnout among those under 30 rose significantly in 2004 compared to 2000. While turnout went up among all age groups, the relative gain was clearly greater among those under 30. While mobilizing the young is difficult, these data show that it is possible to get significant gains, at least relative to past turnout.

Even so, the "highly mobilized" 20-somethings of 2004 still fell behind the turnout of their 30-something older siblings. A supposed Obama-surge among the young may still not catch up with those even a bit older.

The irony is that the young are a large share of the population, but not of the electorate. The chart below shows the population by age in 2004 (it shifts a little by 2008 but not enough to change the story.)


The "boomers" in their 40s and 50s remain the largest group, but for our purposes there are two important points. Those under 30 make up a substantial share of the population, while those 60 and over represent a substantially smaller share at each age.

In 2004 those 18-29 were 21.8% of the population, while those 58-69 were just 13.2%. Add in the 11.5% 70 and up, and you get just 24.7% of "geezers" over 58 vs. 21.8% of "kids". But the sly old geezers know a thing or two about voting. Shift from share of the population to share of the electorate and the advantage shifts to the old: 18-29 year olds were just 16% of the electorate in 2004, while those 58-69 were an almost equal 15.9%. Add in the 70+ group at 13.4% and the geezers win hands down: 29.3% of voters vs 16% for the young. That difference is the power of high turnout. It goes a long way to explaining why Social Security is the third rail of American politics.

High turnout buys "over-representation". Divide share of voters by share of the population and you get proportionate representation. A ratio of 1.0 means a group votes proportionate to its size. Values over 1 are overrepresented groups. In 2004, for example, 55 year olds were represented 20% more than their population would suggest, with a 1.2 score. The youngest voters, 18 year olds, had an abysmal representation rate of 0.49 in 2000, less than half their share of the population.


While turnout rises with age, it is not until we hit 40 or so that we reach "fair" representation (1.0). After that, every age group is over-represented in the electorate. Less than 40, and every age group is under-represented. (Two small exceptions-- so sue me.)

So what are the implications? If you gave me a choice of being wildly popular with the young or moderately popular with the old, I'd take the old any day. They are far more reliable in voting, and while their population numbers are small they more than make up for it in over-representation thanks to turnout differences.

There is much conversation about "youth" turnout this year. Perhaps we will indeed see another rise, as we did in 2004. But unless something truly unprecedented occurs, no one can win on the young alone. The gap in turnout is simply too large.

But is age destiny? If there were constant differences in partisan preference by age, then perhaps so. But there aren't. Despite being supposedly "old and set in their ways", those 60 and up shifted their votes more than any other age group between 2000 and 2004. In 2000, the 60+ vote went to Gore by a 4 point margin. In 2004, however, those 60+ went for Bush by 8 points. That net 12 point swing, multiplied by their over-representation means a lot.


The 20-somethings also shifted, from +2 for Gore to +9 for Kerry. Coupled with their surge in turnout, the younger voters kept Kerry close in 2004 when he was losing in every other age category. But it wasn't enough to win.

The Obama campaign may be right that they can gain votes by mobilizing the young. But the old play a bigger role in elections, and they are not imovable in their vote preferences. Indeed, they make the youngest group seem a bit static by comparison. It is not the candidate's age that will be the key to winning the votes of those 60 and over. Issues and personality will play a large role. Any candidate would be well advised to recognize that the dynamic swings among older voters coupled with their substantial over-representation makes them a potent force for electoral change.

Cross-posted at PoliticalArithmetik.com



yup. my parents and aunts and uncles have all shifted radically this cycle.

sometimes i think they are more indecisive or quixotic or mercurial (take your pick) than teenagers.

they respond less to 'looks' but just as much to charisma. they may have strong ideologies but have shifted drastically over their lifetime. they devour the news but hang on sound bites more than we younger folk.

this is odd to me, i figured they'd see through the stuff. they remember less of nuance so the ads work better for them. they identify facts as those things they remember best and it tends to be those darn hackneyed drum beats.

this totally amazes me especially since they are so darn smart. but you have to understand that there is a neurological thing going on in their heads which accounts for why they shift and how they finally land.

if a fact gets past their short term memory, you better believe it is harder to jog it from their long term memory. powerful imagery that lodges in their brain with an emotional kick to it works better in the older electorate than the younger ones who replace this and that fact much more rapidly.

they have less neurons firing. so powerful ads affect their brain cells and fire across more pathways. potent sound bites do the same thing. it's anybody's guess whether paris hilton took mccain or obama down in the older demographic.

would a pollster canvass to find out? i doubt it.

seriously. so to win these guys, listing this or that pro or con stance or whatever leaves them unaffected.

anyway, per the graphs above...it's pretty clear. court the silver haired ones. they are totally into this and care a great deal.



I think your figures are turnout rates for the voting-age population. The 2004 CPS citizen-voting age population turnout for 18-29 years olds was 49.0% (s.e. = 0.4%) and in 2000, it was 40.3% (s.e. = 0.4%). It would be nice if you could reproduce these figures for citizens since non-citizens tend to be younger.



Fine, as it goes. But one can look at these statistics in another way.

I'm interested in the trends of participation and the potential outreach may have on election outcomes. For older voters one needs to change their voting preference...but they will likely vote. But younger potential voters can be influenced on two levels...candidate choice AND participation.

And your first chart clearly shows an increase in participation in under-30's between the 2000-2004 elections. At the lower age range (18-20) that increase was up almost up 50% from previous levels. It merges with traditional turnout levels as the cohort approaches their 30's. There was almost no increase in participation levels in any over 30 cohort.

Thus younger voters are the only ones increasing in participation, and they still have a large untapped potential. While past Democratic candidates and the party have attempted to tap this demographic, I can't think that Gore or Kerry appealed to them as much as Obama has.

Even if one holds a continuation of the 2000 > 2004 increase will occur, it will mean that their participation will be equivalent to the 35-50 year old age-group.

But most pollsters have actually dimished the weighting of the 18-30 demographics from the 2004 turnout levels.


Michael is right-- I used population rather than citizens. If anyone doesn't already know, Michael is THE person for "voting eligible population" data, an important refinement on both total population AND on citizens, since quite a few citizens aren't eligible for one reason or another. When Michael talks turnout, people listen.

I've redrawn the figures for citizens only. You can see them in the "P.S." at Political Arithmetik:


While changing the base to citizens shifts the percentages cited in the post a little, and changes the figures slightly, none of the substantive conclusions or argument changes. I've left the post as it was originally, but posted the revised graphs for those who are curious.

Thanks to Michael for pointing this out.




You're being misleading, and prefering being moderately popular over the old instead of wildly popular with the young is quite frankly your loss -- especially this year.

You're too fixated on turnout alone. Despite having such low turnout in 2004, the 18-29 group equalled the 58-69 group in actual votes cast. You should be looking at turnout * population = total votes cast, not just turnout alone, seeing as that's meaningless if the groups you're looking at are too small to take advantage of their better turnout.

All you're really showing is that you can't win with only the youth vote -- and that's not exactly news. Neither democrats or republicans win by relying on a single demographic like that.

Furthermore, since the 18-29 group is such a large part of the population as a whole, one doesn't NEED to match turnout increases from older groups. Being nearly twice the population size of the 58-69 group means that merely half the turnout increase of that group is needed just to keep up with the extra votes they're casting.

Except that turnout is easier to increase among youths, as we can see in the graphs. The shift in the slope was very dramatic from 2000 to 2004 (...but only at the left side of the graph).

And since in terms of actual numbers (read: potential votes), there being more 18-29 year olds not voting vs other age groups, that leaves more room to grow in this group, while growth is much more limited among old people.

You're also failing to consider that nearly half the youth who overwhelmingly voted for Kerry in 2004 now fall into the next older age group. In the meantime the people who have died over the past four years voted disproportionately for Bush, which naturally are trends favorable to democrats. The entire vote margin chart starts by being pushed up higher than what it was in 2004, so you seem to be overstating what it means to be "moderately popular among old people."



These are very interesting numbers. Has anyone done voting intention comparisons to actual 2000,2004 and intentions 2008?


Thanks Charles. I might quibble a bit about your conclusion of the effect of using citizenship to your analysis. The turnout differences between young and old appear less when turnout is calculated as a percentage of citizens rather than voting-age population. Also note how the when citizens are analyzed, the increase in turnout between 2000 and 2004 is more evenly disitrbuted among all age groups while when the general population is analyzed, the increase comes disproportionately from younger voters. If 2008 is a higher turnout election than 2004, and if the 2000 to 2004 pattern holds, the citizenship analysis suggests that the higher turnout in 2008 will come more from a increase among all age categories, not just the young.


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