Gov. Jerry Brown secured a convincing win for his tax initiative on last week's ballot, thanks partly to voters who might not seem like a natural constituency for the 74-year-old, lifelong politician -- young voters.
Those under 30 helped Brown win relatively easy passage for his Proposition 30, which will raise the statewide sales tax for four years and income taxes on high earners for seven years.
College students and the parents of school-age children had the most at stake with the initiative. If it failed, Brown and state lawmakers were poised to cut $6 billion from K-12 schools and higher education.
Faced with the prospect of more tuition hikes, students rallied for Proposition 30 on social networking sites and breathed new life into the Democratic governor's plan to stabilize state finances.
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and a consortium of television networks showed 28 percent of those who cast ballots on Proposition 30 were between the ages of 18 and 29, a demographic that supported Brown's initiative by an overwhelming two-thirds. It also was a higher percentage of young voters than the pre-election polls used to show the measure faltering among likely voters.
"Every poll was assuming that young voters were going to be less engaged than they were going to be in each of the last four presidential elections," said Scott Lay, president and chief executive of the Community College League of California, who also runs a data-driven political blog.
Lay, who supported Proposition 30, said he was still surprised that the initiative fared so well, winning with 54 percent of the vote. Brown had faced criticism from fellow Democrats and the media for failing to launch an aggressive campaign sooner and concentrating so much of his effort on college campuses.
Yet students apparently got the message.
"He really connected to them, and they do feel a great deal of economic angst. Certainly they voted for Barack Obama, but that probably wasn't the leading reason they went to the polls," Lay said. Obama "may have ridden the coattails of Prop. 30 in California."
Part of the credit also goes to California's new online voter registration system, which drew more than 1 million users this fall and helped at least 380,000 voters sign up for the first time, a demographic that skewed younger and more Democratic than the average California voter.
The exit polls showed 53 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds also supported Proposition 30, while support fell below 50 percent for voters age 45 and over. The survey of 3,018 California voters had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. It was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research.
Those under 30 joined minorities and women in supporting Brown's proposal, which was billed as an education initiative and had support from the major teacher unions. Other exit poll findings for Proposition 30:
-- White voters, who made up 55 percent of those casting ballots, were split 50-50 on the initiative.
-- Hispanics, who were 23 percent of the electorate, were 53 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.
-- Asians, who were 12 percent of the electorate, were 61 percent in favor and 39 percent opposed.
-- And blacks, who were 8 percent of those casting ballots, were 75 percent in favor and 25 percent opposed.
Support for Brown's initiative also fell with rising income levels:
-- Those who made less than $50,000 a year were 58 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.
-- Those who made between $50,000 and $100,000 a year were 53 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.
-- And those who made more than $100,000 a year were split 50-50.
Higher engagement from younger voters will require future campaigns to adapt. Organizers said those voters are more likely to wait until the final weeks to register to vote and prefer to connect with friends about politics online rather than through fliers, phone calls or emails.
"Email is now one of the more outdated forms of communication," said Kris Octabiano, 25, managing director of the California Young Democrats, which represents 14- to 35-year-olds and helped target get-out-the-vote efforts this year. "Facebook and Twitter, it's all peer-to-peer. Both are the proven methods in terms of communicating where people are."
Democrats used other tools to motivate young voters. When former President Bill Clinton was coming to the University of California, Davis, near Sacramento, students who volunteered to work phone banks for an hour or two beforehand -- urging yes on Proposition 30 and no on Proposition 32, an initiative aimed at thwarting union power -- received preferential spots at the rally.
Clinton, who campaigned with Democratic candidates on college campuses several times but did not appear with Brown, proved a big draw with students who knew of him through their parents.
Octabiano said once students are educated, they want to be involved in politics. He hopes the strong turnout shows that young people are now a strong voting bloc that should not be ignored.
"They're starting to see the light and saying every vote does matter and that despite previous election cycles where youth turnout was low, what we're starting to see now is more young voters being aware of the issues at hand," he said.