One of the biggest stories to come out of the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses was the huge turnout of young voters. The day after the caucuses, papers were littered with breathless headlines about what Time magazine called Obama’s “Youth Vote Triumph.” As a headline in The Nation put it, “Young People Just Made History.” People wondered aloud if they misjudged the generation that seems to get more excited about Facebook than about the war in Iraq.

But what’s getting lost in all the talk about the unprecedented number of youth voters is that, relatively speaking, turnout for the 17- to 29-year-olds bracket shouldn’t have been so shocking. Data compiled by Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, a non-profit group focused on youth civic and political involvement, shows that while Democratic youth turnout was substantially higher than that of Republicans, the total percentage of caucus-goers under the age of 30 was 18 percent, up just one percentage point from 2004.

What this means is that while the youth vote did go up dramatically, so did everyone else’s vote. The real story is that turnout was up, not that youth turnout was up. Last weekend’s narrative that young people have finally shaken off the stranglehold of apathy that had seemingly gripped our generation, while inspirational, rings a little hollow. We were never that detached to begin with.

Sure, there aren’t protests on the Diag like there used to be. But even in 1972, the general election voter turnout for people under age 30 was only about 55 percent – not that much higher than it is now. The worst years for youth voter turnout since then were also the lowest for the rest of the population: 1996 and 2000. Even in those two years, the rates hovered around 40 percent. Once our generation reached the voting age in 2004, turnout again jumped to almost 50 percent. The truth is, kids these days aren’t as apathetic as the pundits think we are.

What does this mean for the Democratic victor in Iowa, Barack Obama? First, as far as the primaries go, his emphasis on the youth vote was well placed. With 57 percent caucusing for him, young voters gave a more resounding endorsement to Obama than evangelical Christians did to Mike Huckabee, and that’s saying something. Young voters did make the difference Friday, but not because of some miracle of turnout – more likely it was because they voted as more of a block.

Second, because the high voter turnout was the continuation of a trend, not a statistical blip, Obama need not fret about youth in the general election. Young voters will turn out, just like they always have. Plus, youth turnout is on a clear upswing, so there’s no real reason to think it won’t continue rising even above 2004 numbers.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Obama would have an easy ride in the general election. As John Kerry could tell you, the youth vote isn’t everything. In 2004, Kerry owed his loss largely to social conservatives voting for the controversial constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage that also appeared on many ballots, not because youth voters abandoned him.

A lot has changed since 1972. Now that Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality isn’t stripping down rugby players outside the Fleming Administration Building anymore, compelling student protest has all but disappeared. The only Diag gathering of any real significance this year was the Go Blue, Beat OSU Pep Rally, and a lot of good it did us. Still, weighted for population, young people made up a larger percent of the electorate in the 2004 presidential election than they ever have before – more than even in 1972, when 18-year-olds got the vote. That’s impressive, especially considering we didn’t even live through a draft.

Still, it’s probably wise for the Obama campaign to keep thinking about young voters the way it has in the past, as “icing on the cake.” Obama can’t rock the student vote all the way to the White House any more than Clinton could rely on her strongest demographic of older, married women to take her all the way – and they account for more of the population than the 17-29 year old bracket. Obama will get a boost if he can ride the already upward trend of youth turnout without making it a comprehensive strategy, and it’s possible that it could make the difference.

After all, who wants to eat a cake without icing?

Anne VanderMey is the Daily’s magazine editor. She can be reached at vandermy@umich.edu.

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