Despite the signals in my own reporting for PBS as well as in scientific surveys that the decisive 18- to 29-year-old bloc would not turn out enthusiastically this November, nearly two dozen million twentysomethings were galvanized anew in 2012.
In Florida and across battleground America — the other hotly contested swing-states like Ohio and Virginia — both overall youth turnout and its margin favoring President Barack Obama grew stronger. While the national margin of victory for the Democratic ticket slightly declined among young Americans under 30, their share within the electorate increased by one whole percentage point.
Thus, once all the votes are counted, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, it is entirely possible that more young voters actually went to the polls in 2012 than in 2008. In an increasingly vulnerable economy for Millennials, it is surprising, on the one hand, that more young Americans did not choose an alternative to the politics as usual of incumbency.
But thanks to the rapidly changing demography and political values of the nation, more of the same looked like former Gov. Mitt Romney — not Obama — to the vast majority of young voters. Over the 2008 campaign, the culminating backlash against eight years of war and economic decline, many college students and recent graduates entrusted an eloquent ascending political savior with their votes.
The margin by which they favored Obama over his opponent Sen. John McCain broke the record for any presidential candidate. In his bid for re-election, skeptics believed that the Obama team couldn't come close to repeating his 2008 youth performance. But this November, young voters doubled-down on President Obama, ensuring that neither a progressive administration nor their activism could be diminished as one-and-done failed efforts.
Their mission in 2008 was inspired partially by a desire to transcend racial inequality. At the forefront, Obama looked beyond America's divided red and blue states, the message he championed in his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, and younger Americans sought to remake the country's political landscape as forever more inclusive.
Now younger Americans made another profound and yet broader unifying generational statement: Young people favor social, economic and political equity, and they found that source of uplift in Obama's message. On Election Night, as the results poured in from Florida and the cadre of battlegrounds, the outcome hinged upon the conviction of an economically strapped generation that Obama is behind them.
The administration's pledge of continued investment in Pell Grants and higher education seems to have connected with the widest possible swath of students. And the president's appeal reached across the key micro-demographics among younger Americans — Latinos and women — all rooted in his "Forward" message of fairness. To single women, he is a faithful guardian of equal pay and reproductive care. To Latino families, he is a compassionate advocate of their path to citizenship and economic livelihood.
Now term limits have the potential to intrude on the growth of youth engagement because the man who has captured the hearts and minds of Gen Y is barred from running for the presidency again. While young people continue to believe Obama is the vehicle for change, his supporters will have to contemplate how they will employ their political energies to realize reform beyond his re-election.
Young people's vision for politics is deeply embedded in their aspiration for socially-conscious unity governance, which they view as an incomplete mission of a president who pledged an end to the bitterly divisive politics that have continued since his election.
During one of my last campus stops for PBS, a student told me he is "ready for the election to be over." Finally, the contest has come to a close. Young Americans now get the chance to cement the foundation of a sustained grassroots movement that transcends consecutive presidential campaigns. So how far "Forward" will they go?
Alexander Heffner is a special correspondent for PBS's "Need to Know" covering the campaign's college vote. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.