Paul Ryan had a vision for the youth vote in 2012. In his speech accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination, the Wisconsin congressman imagined legions of recent college graduates forced to “live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
Ryan was sure those kids had recovered from their passing Obama fever and would either stay home or vote Republican. What happened, of course, was very different. The under-30 vote went nearly as strongly for Obama as it had before: Obama got 66 percent of the under-30 vote in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012, the best youth-vote showings for any presidential candidate since 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18. Against the by-now-familiar backdrop of massive Obama rallies on college campuses, liberal youth might just seem like the normal order of things. But there’s nothing natural about it. Ronald Reagan came within a point of capturing the under‑30 vote in his 1980 presidential election, then won it by 19 points in 1984, giving the lie to the idea that kids are inherently liberal.
Now some Democrats hope Obama’s repeat success with young voters signals the arrival of a cohort whose members will vote Democratic for the rest of their lives. “These are voters who are in their formative years, politically,” Joel Benenson, the lead pollster for the Obama campaign, told me excitedly in the days after the election. “People frequently maintain the partisan identity that shapes their entry point into politics. What’s happening now is something people will hang on to for decades to come.”