CHICAGO (AP) - Rafi Zelikowsky skipped class on Tuesday to camp out in downtown Chicago and wait for Barack Obama, the man who captured the hearts of so many young voters.
"We're feeding off the energy," said Zelikowsky, a 19-year-old Northwestern University student from Los Angeles who arrived at 7:30 a.m. to stand in a long line outside the park where supporters awaited Obama's victory address more than 16 hours later.
Zelikowsky, who voted for Obama by absentee ballot in California, also spent the previous weekend canvassing for the Illinois senator in rural Iowa.
That kind of loyalty - and the Obama campaign's early efforts to harness young voters - paid off at the ballot box. Early exit polls showed that young voters were supporting him by a 2-1 margin, with his greatest support coming from black and Hispanic young people. The preliminary results are similar to those from polls conducted before the election.
Overall, about two-thirds of voters younger than 30 supported Obama. And the overwhelming majority of black voters and about three-quarters of Hispanic voters in that age bracket said they voted for Obama. Many young voters said Obama being black was a non-issue. Meanwhile, more than half of white youth cast a vote for the senator from Illinois, while more than two out of five supported John McCain, the senator from Arizona.
Many young voters, black youth included, saw this election as their chance to help make history. And they did.
"I've been wanting to vote. I'm finally part of it," said Chamar Morrison, a 19-year-old sophomore at North Carolina Central University who is black and who voted for Obama.
She listed the cost of a college education and the war in Iraq as two of her top issues. The early exit polls showed support for Obama steadily decreasing as the age of the voters who were questioned increased. For instance, a little over half of voters older than 65 supported McCain. But this time, it was the younger generations who had the final say.
The survey results are based on an early random sample of more than 17,000 voters in Election Day exit polls and telephone interviews over the past week for early voters. The exit poll was conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director at the Pew Hispanic Center, said the early exit poll results fit his expectations. He also noted that in 2004 young, white voters went for President Bush over Democrat John Kerry, like the older age groups did.
This time, there was a shift in favor of the Democrats. Lopez said strong support from young voters clearly helped Obama win.
"I think they had a large impact," said Lopez, who was formerly the research director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which tracks young voters.
There had been some speculation that Obama's race may have been a factor in the election. Many young voters, however, said Obama's race wasn't relevant. And Lopez noted that his own organization's surveys of young Hispanic voters had found that about half of them thought Obama's race would help him win the support of their age group.
Young voter participation, which has ebbed and flowed over the years, has been on an upswing since the 2000 presidential election, though the impact of young voters was not as strongly felt because, while they leaned Democratic, they were more evenly split between the major candidates.
In 2004, about 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, up from 36 percent in 2000, according to the Census Bureau. No other age group increased its turnout by more than 5 percentage points in 2004. Overall, voters younger than 30 make up about 17 percent of the electorate. Exit polls numbers cannot, however, be used to compare participation among the age groups.
As the crowd at Chicago's Grant Park became increasingly giddy as it became clear that Obama was on his way to victory, 21-year-old Erica Ravi and 18-year-old Eric Reynolds, both students at nearby Columbia College, performed an impromptu rap with friends.
"O to the B to the A-M-A - I know Obama's gonna win today," they said in unison. "O to the B to the A-M-A -I know there's gonna be a change today."
There were, of course, some young voters who were disappointed with Tuesday's results. They included Joey Yost, a 22-year old Republican in Washington, D.C., who voted for McCain via absentee ballot in his home state of Ohio, which went to Obama.
"I'm disappointed, but I knew it was coming," said Yost, a recent college graduate who works on Capitol Hill.
"It's good that we've become a powerful part of the electorate," he added, referring to young voters. "I just wish we voted more Republican than Democratic."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)