Voters under the age of 30 comprised 18 percent of Colorado’s turnout in 2008, outnumbering voters over the age of 65, and that injection of youth helped hand President Barack Obama a comfortable nine-point victory there. The big question going into 2012: Can Obama replicate those turnout numbers among younger voters?
Obama’s win over Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) marked only the fourth time since World War II that a Democratic presidential candidate won Colorado. The president was bolstered by robust support from Latinos in the state to be sure, but the turnout among young voters — a voting bloc often dismissed as apathetic and unreliable — was staggering.
“Their turnout levels were really amazing,” David Flaherty, CEO of the Colorado-based Republican polling firm Magellan Strategies, told TPM. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Obama’s youth coalition weakened older, traditionally right-leaning groups of voters, Flaherty says.
The generation gap is arguably more pronounced in Colorado than any other state, says
Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. PPP released a survey of the state earlier this month that showed Obama, powered by support from young people, holding a 13-point lead over Mitt Romney.
“Young voters pretty much everywhere lean Democratic but it’s a stronger factor in Colorado than just about anywhere else,” Jensen told TPM in an email. “We find more than 70 percent of voters under 30 there support Barack Obama.”
Colorado boasts one of the lowest median ages in the country. Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, is one of the nation’s liberal bastions. And while fewer young Americans are migrating anywhere due to the poor economy, Denver has experienced an influx of individuals between the ages of 25 and 34 since the beginning of the recession that has been unrivaled by other metropolitan areas.
Those demographics provide fertile ground for Democrats, who have seen a resurgence in Colorado over the last decade. After wins in 2006 and 2008, by Ken Salazar and Sen. Mark Udall (D) respectively, Democrats held both of the state’s United States Senate seats for the first time since 1979. In 2010, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) weathered a brutal political climate to stave off tea party champion Ken Buck and hold on to the seat vacated by Salazar when he became Obama’s secretary of the interior. The state’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, is one of the most popular in the country.
Matching the 2008 levels of enthusiasm with young voters will be a tall order for the president, especially after a bruising first term. In the 2010 election, voters under the age of 30 made up only 12-percent of the state’s final tally. Overall turnout generally dips in midterm elections, but re-energizing those voters may be one of the most crucial challenges of Obama’s re-election efforts in Colorado.
“If we get 18-percent again, that — along with Latino and women voters — will be really formidable,” one Democratic strategist in Colorado told TPM. “The big question for us is, ‘What kind of turnout do we get?’”
Republicans in Colorado are not simply counting on Obama being left at the altar by younger voters. “That younger demographic in Colorado creates a lot of dynamic opportunities for our party,” state GOP chairman Ryan Call told TPM. “President Obama was obviously able to excite them the last time around, but they’re not too excited about their job prospects now. I think those voters will respond to Mitt Romney’s focus on the economy and job creation.”
Flaherty says that Obama doesn’t necessarily need to meet the high-water mark he set in 2008; that lofty precedent gives his campaign something of a cushion. But a steep drop in youth turnout could jeopardize the president’s chances in a state where Flaherty expects the race to be “nip and tuck.”
“It’s a pillar for him to win Colorado,” Flaherty said. “If young people are disappointed in what they’ve seen over the last three-and-a-half years, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Mitt Romney is the alternative. They may just stay home.”
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.