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Obama & The Return of the Young Voter

In 2008, the millennial generation was critical in putting Barack Obama in the White House. Four years later, millennials seem to be tuned out.

One of the most popular narratives on the 2008 campaign trail was the millennial generation coming of age. Starry-eyed, Facebook-organizing activists were critical in putting President Obama in the White House, the story went.

So four years later, where are the millennials? Tuned out, but not for long, says Morley Winograd of the USC Annenberg School. Winograd, along with scholar Michael Hais, is the author of two books on how millennials are destined to be game-changers in American politics. The election of President Obama was just the start, Winograd says. In the 2012 race, millennial voters could again represent the critical margin of a Democratic victory, if Obama’s team reaches out to them.

According to Winograd, the key for the Obama campaign will be to tap into young voters’ energy in a decentralized way, allowing grassroots activism to flourish on its own. “I think you’ll see more of that as the campaign unfolds,” he says.

For the time being, millennial voters seem disinterested. A recent Pew study found a drop in voters aged 18-29 who said they follow campaign news closely, from 31 percent in 2008 to just 20 percent in 2012. It’s little surprise, given that millennials overwhelmingly vote Democrat and this primary season has been dominated by an ongoing public discussion over conservatism.

Nearly one-third of millennials identify as conservative, Winograd notes, but with the exception of Ron Paul’s platform, the Republican Party message is at loggerheads with younger voters.

“What’s happened is that the established conservative power structure has basically rejected millennial ideas of conservatism,” Winograd says. For young voters, tolerance on social issues is paramount — a stark contrast to the older, more traditional conservative voters Republican candidates have been courting.

“There might be an avenue for them if they talk about choice and individual freedoms,” Winograd says. “But now, they’re talking about restricting choice and freedom at a social level — a dangerous course of action if you look at the demographics.”

Millennials may vote less than other generations, but there are more of them. In 2012 there are 16 million more millennials of voting age than there were in 2008. By decade’s end, they will represent one out of every three voters. Winograd adds that other conservative commentators have already taken note: a Washington Examiner op-ed by Michael Barone says that Republican candidates are ignoring young voters at their own political peril.

“If you don’t have an appeal to that generation, you’re going to have a very difficult time putting together a majority political presence,” Winograd says.

Morley Winograd is senior fellow at the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Contact him at (213) 448-8884 or

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