WASHINGTON – Turns out, the kids rocked after all.
Nearly half of all eligible young voters cast ballots in the November 2004 election, raising their turnout rate by more than twice any other age group.
"This is big," said David King, associate director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University who highlighted the Census Bureau findings in an IOP report Wednesday. "When you vote young, you're much more likely to vote the rest of your life, so the 2004 campaign turned a generation on to politics."
Exit polls from Election Day 2004 had shown that 9 percent of voters were 18 to 24, about the same proportion of the electorate as in 2000. Those figures were interpreted as a sign that young voters failed to increase their political impact in an election that focused on the Iraq war and included unsubstantiated rumors that the Bush administration might impose the draft.
The Census numbers suggest that young voters did get involved.
About 47 percent of Americans 18-24 voted in 2004, up from 36 percent in 2000, according to the Census Bureau. No other age group increased its turnout by more than 5 percentage points.
Even with the increase, the youngest voters still had the lowest turnout rate. Nearly three of every four people aged 55-74 voted in 2004.
Those numbers explain why elderly voters are highly prized by candidates. But they also suggest there is enormous potential in the young vote, and that efforts by President Bush and Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry to recruit college-age students were worth the trouble.
The 18-24 set made up 9 percent of the electorate last year, up very slightly from 8 percent the previous election. It's unclear what that might mean for the young vote in the future.
"Will it work for kids who were 14 years old in 2004? No idea. That work still remains to be done," King said. "But the 2004 campaign itself was an immense mobilizing event, bringing out the largest percent of young voters in 32 years."
Democrats found hope in the statistics because, according to exit polls, Kerry won 56 percent of votes cast by people aged 18-24. Bush earned 43 percent of their votes.
The Census Bureau statistics have their limitations. Unlike exit polls that capture voters as they leave balloting stations, the Census relies on people to be honest and accurate about their past voting behavior.
Still, King and others said there was no reason to believe one age group would start exaggerating voting habits more than others.
"If there is a lot of social pressure to vote, we find that based on class or incomes, not based on age," King said.
"There is some suspicion that there is over-reporting, but we don't have any way of telling who is telling us the truth and who isn't," said Kurt Bauman, chief of the Census Bureau's education section.
The bureau collects information about voting habits after every federal election as part of its monthly Current Population Survey, which is best known for generating unemployment numbers.
The bureau interviewed members of 56,000 households in November 2004, and 46,800 households in November 2000.
"This is a larger sample than anything you would get from a poll," Bauman said.
Republicans worried in 2004 that rumors of a draft would create an anti-Bush surge of young voters. Many GOP strategists were pleasantly surprised to see exit polls suggesting there was little impact on turnout.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Josh Earnest called the Census numbers a "strong endorsement" of party efforts to court young voters.
His GOP counterpart, Tracey Schmitt, said the Republican National Committee recognizes the "increasing presence of the youth vote" and is determined to win young people over.
The report suggested that college students were more skeptical of elected officials and the political process than they were earlier. Still, large percentages believe that serving as an elected official is an honorable thing to do.
Young voters were also finding new ways to be politically active, such as wearing wristbands or T-shirts that support a cause, the IOP found.
Politics aside, college students were far more likely than their parents' generation to volunteer and to see such work as a way to solve important national issues, the study said.