Young Voters Forcing Pollsters to Account for Them


ANNAPOLIS (Oct. 27, 2008)—The official Web site for presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama urges volunteers to "Drive for Change," and in his time off from classes and homework, University of Maryland senior Shan Shah does just that.

Shah and other volunteers travel across the state border every weekend to canvass neighborhoods in swing states Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Nov. 4 presidential election.

"I've seen more interest from my friends about politics than I've ever seen by far," said Shah, 21.

The increase in political engagement among young people is reflected in voter registration numbers in Maryland and around the country. It also is forcing pollsters to adjust their methods for surveying voters this election by including more voters who are only reachable by cell phone and by reconsidering the proportion of young voters in their samples.

Overall, the increased registration numbers point to a decided Obama advantage among young voters.

For example, in Maryland the number of new voters ages 21 and younger registering as Democrats in 2008 is 26 percent higher than it was in 2004. The number of new voters of the same demographic registering as Republicans in 2008 is 6 percent lower than it was in 2004.

"It's pretty much always on our minds and we're always watching the debates and we all keep up with the news about the election," said Maryland sophomore Sarah Forman, 19, who is a registered Democrat.

In an attempt to better represent these young voters, pollsters at Gallup and The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, decided this year to include samples of voters in their surveys who are only reachable by cell phones.

A 2006 Pew report found that 48 percent of people under 30 were cell-only. It also showed that most cell-only survey participants were younger and more liberal on many issues than the landline sample.

"It appears that there is a large enough group of cell-onlys and they're significantly different from the landline population that their exclusion is making a difference that even the normal weighing we do doesn't correct for," said Scott Keeter, Pew's director of survey research.

Keeter said that when cell-only voters are included, Obama does slightly better.

Some, but not all pollsters, are adjusting their methods for creating likely voter samples to reflect increased political engagement among younger voters.

Typically, likely voters are determined based on levels of registration, interest and intention. Traditional models include a person's past voting behavior while expanded models judge likely voters on their current intentions.

But Gallup released a report on Oct. 22 stating that regardless of whether or not past behaviors of young voters is taken into account, their proportion in likely voter samples hardly changes from the 12 to 14 percent of previous elections. Gallup polls show that registration and turnout among younger voters will not match that of older Americans, despite the current political enthusiasm.

Pew, on the other hand, is changing how it determines survey samples. For example, Pew is giving less weight to whether or not people have voted before, something college-age voters could not have legally done.

"We are using some additional questions in our likely voter scale that try to pick up the level of engagement that voters have in what's going on," said Keeter. Pew's most recent poll gave Obama a 14-point lead over McCain among both registered and likely voters.

If young voters do turn out in higher than usual numbers, it is likely to help Obama. Not all, but most polls show young people supporting Obama over McCain by substantial margins.

Gallup shows Obama up by almost 2 to 1.

"I saw him and I was really inspired," said Forman, who sat in a crowd of 18,000 in Maryland's Comcast Center when Obama held a rally there in February. "I know a lot of people plan on voting, and my group of friends, we all talk about it all the time."

Maryland election officials anticipate large crowds. More than 4,000 voters are assigned to the two polling stations on the University of Maryland campus.

"Not only at those two polling places, at Bowie State University as well, we do expect a high turnout of the students and as a result of that we have increased the number of voting units," said Alisha Alexander, election administrator for the Prince George's County Board of Elections.

For the 2004 election, there were 14 voting units at the College Park campus. This year there will be 32.

"I think this election, this can be huge, huge youth voter turnout," Shah said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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