Greg Mankiw has a chart illustrating the dramatic drop in the youth vote for McCain versus Bush. He concludes:
So what does the Republican Party need to do to get the youth vote back? If these Harvard students are typical (and perhaps they are not, as Harvard students are hardly a random sample), the party needs to scale back its social conservatism. Put simply, it needs to become a party for moderate and mainstream libertarians. The actual Libertarian Party is far too extreme in its views to attract these students. And it is too much of a strange fringe group. These students are, after all, part of the establishment. But a reformed Republican Party could, I think, win them back.
Can the Republican Party move in this direction without losing much of its base? I have no idea, but for the GOP, that seems to be the challenge ahead.
I'm still not sure what to make of the youth voters. I noted yesterday that looking at the exit polls, it appears that the two most pro-Obama groups in the election were under-29 and 50-64 cohort, which roughly corresponds to Baby Boomers and their kids.
One experienced political hand told me in an email that "youth are notoriously fickle" and that in his view it is just a matter of finding an attractive candidate (like Obama). And while that is likely part of it, it doesn't seem like the full story to me.
If I had to guess, it wasn't just that Obama attracted young voters, it is also that George Bush had a dramatic negative effect in driving away young voters. In this sense, I think back to myself and my generation, attending college in the 1980s. At that time, my tendency toward libertarian/conservatism was as much a negative reaction to Jimmy Carter and liberalism as an attraction to Ronald Reagan and conservatism (as well as the influence of my parents).
One final note--Mankiw notes that his students generally prefer free market economic policies and liberal social policies (which is why he sees them as libertarian). One thing to keep in mind is that today's recent college grads have been raised in an environment of about 25 years of virtually uninterrupted economic prosperity, with some minor downturns, but nothing major. I suspect that this has contributed to a general lack of urgency on the economic issues relative to social issues and environmentalism. When I was a kid, the economy and my family finances were dominated by stagflation, gas shortages, and international decline (remember the Iran hostage situation and helicopters crashing in the desert?).
I suspect that this backdrop has something to do with how people form their political beliefs. Today's students have been able to take prosperity and basically sound economic policies for granted (until recently, perhaps, but we are still well below the misery of the Carter years). So economics haven't been burning issues and so they've emphasized lifestyle and symbolic issues. When I was a kid, it didn't feel like we could take economic prosperity for granted, and that was something that dominated our worldview. The real question becomes what happens if economic times become more challenging or if efforts on environmental regulation substantially impact economic prosperity (as Bill Niskanen suggests). Not to mention the fact that this looks like a vote to put off for at least another four years the ticking time bomb of Social Security and Medicare (Niskanen again). My hope for the good of the country, of course, is that we won't confront a major economic slowdown that forces a renewed focus on economic issues.
I have no idea what this means for the future of the youth vote. But if it means that the Republican Party (and I hope the Democrats too) move in a more libertarian direction, then sign me up.
Readers may be interested that there are some really terrific comments to this post that I found very informative. In addition to some interesting comments from younger readers I should also acknowledge that several readers pointed out the importance of national security issues and the Cold War when I was coming of age. Shows how much the world has changed that I had sort of forgot about how important it was at the time. I mentioned "international decline" but it is hard to remember how important good old-fashioned national security was at the time, so I adopt those points in the comments by reference here.