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February 27, 2016

Study: Pennsylvania's young voters could help sway 2016 election

State ranks third in report's youth electoral significance

Politics Voting
Carroll - Democracy Now Signs Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

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P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" slogan ended up being known more for serving as the butt of numerous parodies than an effective way to increase youth voter turnout. So, how about some hard numbers?

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement -- mercifully shortened to CIRCLE -- recently produced a study that found 10 states which could have a large impact on the 2016 presidential election if young voters get out and cast their ballots.

Pennsylvania was one of them, ranked third by the organization behind Iowa and New Hampshire in terms of how young voters in the state could impact the election. CIRCLE produced an index of youth electoral significance based on a number of factors, including the population of voters under 30, the competitiveness of each state and election laws. Here's why the Keystone State is important, according to CIRCLE:

This regularly key election state has seen large gaps in presidential candidate support in the past between youth and those 30 and older. The youth population in the state is large at 1.96 million young citizens, 15% of whom are Black, the highest turnout group among youth. The state has 404 institutions of higher education, in which 413,000 students are enrolled. Online registration will be available for the first time during the Presidential election in 2016, potentially increasing voter registration.

It's an interesting conclusion, but there are a couple of things to remember here. First, the state hasn't gone for a Republican candidate in a presidential election since 1988. Youth voters tend to lean Democratic, so an uptick in youth turnout would likely mean Pennsylvania stays blue in a general election anyway.

The study's authors do make a point to say that without the youth vote, Pennsylvania could have flipped to red for Romney in 2012. So it seems it's more likely in a general election young voters would impact the race by not voting, giving the state to the Republican candidate instead.

Where the youth turnout could also presumably impact the 2016 race is in the primaries, specifically in the Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders has a huge lead over Hillary Clinton nationally when it comes to youth support. A recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that trend to be true in Pennsylvania, but to a less drastic degree, with Sanders edging Clinton among voters under 35 by 5 percent.

But Pennsylvania's primary is held so late in the season that nominees are often locked up in both parties by the time voters in the state get their turn. If Clinton scores a huge Super Tuesday victory and slowly edges Sanders out by April, or vice versa, Pennsylvania's Democratic voters won't really get a say.

A more interesting bit from the study is the acknowledgment of how the youth vote could impact the U.S. Senate race in the state.

This regularly key election state has seen strong youth support for Democratic candidates in comparison to that of older voters... In 2016, Senator Toomey is facing his first Senate reelection battle. During the 2012 Senate race in PA, the margin of victory ended up being over 500,000 votes.

A big youth turnout for whoever the Democratic nominee is could put Toomey's re-election bid in peril. Joe Sestak, Katie McGinty and John Fetterman are currently vying to be the party's choice to take Toomey's seat in November.