TAMPA — They waited long enough that laptops and cell phones died. They wore iPods to stem the boredom and drank free coffee to stay up. Hundreds of University of South Florida and University of Central Florida students waited in lines as long as four hours to be heard on Election Day, joining an army of young voters that pushed Sen. Barack Obama to a historic presidential victory.
Without them, Obama would have lost, an exit poll suggests. A majority of voters age 45 or older voted against him.
"This is the first presidential election I voted in, and I got to see something so historic," said Ileana Morales, 20, a University of Florida junior political science major.
"These are kids, who for the first time finally have a say with their vote and they've seen their family go through the last eight years and they've seen the economy go through the last eight years, and they wanted change.
"And that's why I think Obama was so appealing."
About 24 million 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots — at least 2.2-million more than in 2004, according to the National Election Pool exit poll. The best turnout estimates approached the 1972 Richard Nixon-George McGovern rate of 55.4 percent of eligible young adults. That was the year the voting age was lowered to 18.
This year, young people were drawn by a promise of change. Two of every three of their votes went to Obama.
"The tilt in Obama's favor is pretty striking," said Peter Levine, research director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
In 2000 and 2004, no presidential candidate received more than 55 percent of those votes.
Levine compared the 2008 mandate to 1984 when a phalanx of young voters supported President Ronald Reagan's re-election bid and left a clear, conservative mark on the decades that followed. The same could hold true for Obama and Democrats in years to come, Levine said, because young voters tend to stick with political preferences.
"It was really all about the economy," said Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, which helped register a million more voters for Tuesday's election than in 2004. "It was about affording college and the debt they were carrying when they graduated, and finding a job with wages high enough to pay their bill and take care of their families and about being able to afford health care."
Nationwide, young voters accounted for 18 percent of all voters — a 1 percent increase over the past three presidential elections.
That may not seem like a large jump, but observers note that young people gave more than votes this election. They volunteered their time and money.
"Students are expressing a frustration, a frustration that's common with the American public," said Scott Paine, a University of Tampa government and world affairs professor, who can't remember a year when so many of his students asked to be excused to attend political rallies.
Charismatic Obama connected with young voters. He sent former President Bill Clinton and actor Kal Penn to UCF and spoke the students' language, announcing his vice presidential selection in a text message, mobilizing his campaign on iPhones, advertising on online video games and using Facebook to collect support.
USF student body president Greg Morgan said get-out-the-vote efforts on campus were obvious all semester. Obama and McCain signs sprouted outside dorms and classroom buildings, and students in campaign T-shirts handed out fliers for weeks before Tuesday's election.
But poll workers were caught unprepared for hundreds of USF students who changed their addresses on Tuesday to cast ballots in the Marshall Center.
"I want to have a say in my country, and I love my country so I came out to vote," said Paul Baldwin, 18, a freshman who waited 3 1/2 hours to vote for Obama, wearing a nose ring, metal studded jean vest and a Nixon pin. "First time you vote, you wait four hours. I hope it's not a foreshadow of things to come."
The last USF student voted at 11:07 p.m., five minutes after television networks called the election for Obama.
Leon County, home to the highest proportion of college students in the state, had the highest voter turnout in Florida at nearly 85 percent. At UCF, student groups helped register 10,000 new voters, which also surprised area precincts and led to long lines. But at both UCF and USF, volunteers doled out free food and water while DJs played music to lighten those slogging through long lines.
When Aretha Franklin's seminal jam blared at USF Tuesday night, students danced and belted out the chorus:
Times staff writers Donna Winchester, Angie Holan and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.