Can young people actually make a difference this year?

A college student registers to vote

In 2004, the “youth vote” was supposed to break all records. It did and it didn’t—but either way, it didn’t make a difference for John Kerry, even though he won 54 percent of voters under 29. So it is with this year’s youth vote: Even if it exceeds that of four years ago—Barack Obama currently commands about 60 percent of the under-29 cohort—it will be nearly impossible to say whether it made a difference.

On Election Day 2004, kids turned out in record numbers: About 4.6 million more people under the age of 29 voted in 2004 than in 2000. Yet 18- to 29-year-olds accounted for only 17 percent of voters—roughly the same as in 2000—because the geezer vote also grew. As a result, youth mobilization was declared a myth, perhaps unjustifiably. “We rocked the vote all right,” Hunter S. Thompson said at the time. “Those little bastards betrayed us again.”

Of course, organizers are saying this year could be different. And not just because of will.i.am. Here are a few indicators that in 2008 young people might actually turn off the Family Guy marathon and show up on voting day.

Primary bump: Youth turnout in the primaries saw a huge jump over previous years. In 2000, it was roughly 9 percent of the total vote. This year, it was 17 percent. In the Iowa Democratic primary, youth turnout more than tripled over 2004, a bump that contributed to Obama’s margin of victory there. (Obama beat John Edwards and Hillary Clinton by 20,000 votes. About 17,000 of them were under 30.) Think caucuses are the exception? Youth turnout tripled in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas compared with 2000. And since 2000, increased youth participation in the primaries has led to more votes in the general election.

The ‘06 wave: Speculators wouldn’t be so optimistic if it weren’t for the Phish-like levels of participation in the midterm elections. Participation jumped 4 percent from 2002 to 2006, to the mid-20 percent range—pretty high for a midterm, especially when most young people don’t know their congressman from Ernest Borgnine. They can even claim they made the difference in Montana, where youth turnout rose from 26 percent in 2002 to 39 percent in 2006. Democrat Jon Tester won by about 3,000 votes. Same in Virginia, where the youth vote increase was 14 points (from 18 percent to 32 percent), or 128,000 votes. Sen. Jim Webb won his race by about 8,000 votes. If the whippersnappers can swing a midterm, the thinking goes, why not a presidential election?

Registration nation: In 2004, 60 percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds were registered to vote, and 52 percent of them actually voted. Of those not registered, one-fifth said they’d missed the registration deadline. To avoid repeating history,   Students for Obama  has organized more than 700 chapters, the campaign says. Groups like Rock the Vote and Campus Progress are also registering voters on campuses. They could stay home on Election Day, of course. But bumps in voter registration correlate with surges in turnout.

Geekocracy: Whereas voters in 2004 could get campaign updates via e-mail, now it’s a combination of e-mail, text messages, RSS feeds, tweets, and social networking. Just as online fundraising has boosted donations, the campaign expects online GOTV efforts to bolster turnout. If Obama merely pokes all his Facebook friends on Election Day, for example—well, that’s 1.2 million pokes right there.

Take their word for it: Just because a young person says she’s going to do something, doesn’t mean she will. But in a poll conducted in February by Rock the Vote and the Tarrance Group, 82 percent of voters under 29 said they were likely to vote in November, including 62 percent who called it “extremely likely.” Of course, they probably also said they were going to clean their rooms and do their own taxes.

But all of this isn’t just mere speculation—it may be pointless speculation. That’s because, regardless of whether Obama wins or loses, it will be hard to say that the youth vote—or any other segment of the population—”made the difference.” For one thing, the phrase is meaningless: If an election is close, any group on the winning side can say its votes were decisive. It’s like hogging all the credit for yourself if your candidate wins by one vote.

In addition, 18- to 29-year-olds are a fairly narrow demographic. “To change the entire election, they’d have to be double their size,” says Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s campaign manager in 2004.And thanks to the Electoral College, the growth needs to happen in swing states. Another few hundred thousand young voters in California won’t change much. But if Obama wins Ohio by 5,000 votes, says Trippi, “I can bet it was his lead among young people that put him over.”

So maybe all this hype about the importance of the youth vote is just that. Still, if there’s anything that can stop young voters from sleeping through their 5 p.m. alarm, maybe it’s the knowledge that, if they get out and vote, their curmudgeonly elders will finally shut up about it.