We heard over and over again during the election that the youth movement propelled Barack Obama to victory.  That turns out to be somewhat overblown, Pew Research concludes, but Republicans shouldn’t take much comfort in the exaggeration.  Over the last two presidential elections, the GOP has lost the youth vote by sharply increasing margins — and may have lost an entire generation of voters (via Brian Faughnan):

In the last three general elections – 2004, 2006, and 2008 — young voters have given the Democratic Party a majority of their votes, and for all three cycles they have been the party’s most supportive age group. This year, 66% of those under age 30 voted for Barack Obama making the disparity between young voters and other age groups larger than in any presidential election since exit polling began in 1972.

This pattern of votes, along with other evidence about the political leanings of young voters, suggests that a significant generational shift in political allegiance is occurring. This pattern has been building for several years, and is underscored among voters this year. Among voters ages 18-29, a 19-point gap now separates Democratic party affiliation (45%) and Republican affiliation (26%). In 2000, party affiliation was split nearly evenly among the young.

Young voters are more diverse racially and ethnically than older voters and more secular in their religious orientation. These characteristics, as well as the climate in which they have come of age politically, incline them not only toward Democratic Party affiliation but also toward greater support of activist government, greater opposition to the war in Iraq, less social conservatism, and a greater willingness to describe themselves as liberal politically.

Obama would have won the election without the wide split in the youth vote, Pew concludes, although the scope of the victory would have been narrower.  John McCain could have won Indiana and North Carolina but still would have lost Ohio and Florida.  The youth vote comprised 18% of the electorate, according to CNN’s exit polling, and were 17% in 2004, almost no change at all.  Obama didn’t inspire a spike in participation, but he did manage to significantly change the voting pattern in this bloc.

That could spell trouble for Republicans in the future.  People tend to remain in their political paradigm, and the GOP has not spent enough time making conservatism relevant to the younger voter.  This is a remarkably poor performance, especially on the fiscal impact of expanded government, by which younger voters will be most affected as Medicare and Social Security reach their crisis points.  Obama’s success in wooing younger voters to the Democratic Party may result in a gap which could take Republicans decades to resolve.

Or perhaps not.  If Obama decides to pursue mandatory national service on the basis of Rahm Emanuel’s proposal, those same young voters may suddenly discover their inner libertarians and become more open to reconsidering the Republican message.  If they watch the Obama administration shovel money in corporate bailouts for the next couple of years, fiscal conservatism may regain its luster.  The Republicans, though, have to have a positive agenda for rational government, rebuild its credibility, and most of all start paying attention to younger voters when addressing issues on the stump.  Barack Obama didn’t win their votes by accident two weeks ago.