Like people all across the country, students at St. Augustine's, a small, traditionally black, liberal arts college in Raleigh, sat transfixed as the results came in on Election Night. About 150 students in Seby Jones Auditorium watched CNN projected on the big screen.
Like many of the students at St. Aug's, Jackie Dearring, an 18-year-old pre-med major from upstate New York, had cast her ballot at a nearby early voting site several days before. Her dorm room door was covered in Obama signs, she said.
"I believe it can happen," she said of Obama's imminent victory, "but I'm not going to get my hopes extra high."
At about 8:40 p.m., news anchors called Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes for Obama, and the room exploded in shouts and applause. Some young men stood on chairs and raised their arms up in the air. The joyful noise in the auditorium continued to build. Dearring beamed.
But just as she wasn't inclined to prematurely celebrate Obama's victory, she doesn't expect miracles from his presidency.
"A lot of African-Americans look at him like he's a savior," Dearring said. "Too many people think he's going to do everything they've ever wanted. I don't hold him to that. I don't think he's going to change everything."
Young voters like Dearring and her classmates had a historic impact on this year's election—and they're the ones who put Obama over the edge in North Carolina, exit polls indicate.
"If not for young people, North Carolina would still be a red state," said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Della Volpe studies the public opinion of young Americans in the so-called Millennial Generation (those born between about 1982 and 2001). He said those voters had a big impact this year, but nowhere more so than in the unexpected swing states of Indiana and North Carolina.
CNN's exit poll reported that 74 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in this state chose Obama—the majority of all other age groups went for McCain. That amounts to more than 500,000 votes; Obama won North Carolina by a little more than 13,000, according to unofficial totals. (In Indiana, the poll showed 63 percent of the youth vote went to Obama, while all other age groups preferred McCain.)
"Especially in North Carolina, the energy of young African-Americans was responsible for Obama running up that huge margin," Della Volpe said.
About 23 million Americans under age 30 voted in this year's presidential election—3.4 million more than in 2004—and young voters preferred Obama to McCain by a 2 to 1 margin nationally, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. Youth voter turnout hasn't been this high since 1972, when there was a wartime draft.
Race wasn't the deciding factor, young voters say. Several St. Augustine's students explained that while they recognized Obama was removing a racial barrier in American life, that accomplishment resonated more with their parents and grandparents.
"My grandparents fought for this. I've always felt like it was possible," said David Johnson, a junior theater and film major.
What matters to these voters is the message of change: They're worried about the war, the economy and the opportunities that await them. McCain criticized Obama for a lack of experience. To college-age Americans, that criticism rang hollow. They responded to Obama's talk about the future, about what is possible.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, lead researcher at CIRCLE, said exit polls indicate young voters care about the same issues as the country as a whole. "In terms of priorities, it was the economy first, then Iraq, then health care." Yet, she added, "There seem to be different ideas and different ideology among youth." Most significantly, young people showed a stronger disapproval of the war.
"I don't think we should be in Iraq right now. Bush is just finishing what his father started," Dearring said.
Get-out-the-vote efforts on college campuses were also a significant factor in youth turnout, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
Alison Kibbe of Carrboro went dorm to dorm on Duke University's East Campus, where fellow first-year students live, to canvass for Obama and make sure students knew about the campus early voting site. New this year, the site drew more than 9,000 voters.
Kibbe said she came with her mother to an Obama campaign office during the primary, "and I just never left." Over the summer, she was a paid campaign worker, one of the small army of people who created the organizational network for Democrats.
But prior to this election, she had little interest in party politics.
"I've never been particularly political, though I've been active at the grassroots level," Kibbe said. After finishing high school, she opted to take a year off before starting college and traveled to Haiti by herself, where she taught English in a primary school while collecting data on youth attitudes about the environment for a self-designed research project.
"I realized a lot of things, one of which is that if a system is broken, you hit a ceiling," Kibbe said. The experience led to a realization that her grassroots efforts would be more effective if coupled with an active involvement in politics. It's not enough to work from the ground up, she decided; you have to make change at the leadership level, too.
She said she was moved by the number of Haitians who cared about the U.S. presidential election. "Haitians were very excited about Obama," she said. "I saw a potential for us to change the way our country is viewed, a chance to live up to what we stand for."
Kibbe said Obama's willingness to listen to other people is something that matters to her, and to other people her age. "He thinks about everyone's opinions," she said.
That echoed an observation about her fellow students. She said few were undecided, though many were arriving at their political positions through a kind of awakening, "not from a perspective of where they're coming from, but what they really believe."
On the first day of one-stop early voting, Leonardo Williams came to the North Carolina Central University campus in Durham to cast his ballot.
"I'm excited that history was made this year," he said, more than two weeks before the results were known. He wasn't just referring to Obama's candidacy, but to "how the election electrified everyone—Republican, Democrat, anyone. It says a lot for what this county is going to be about for the next 100 years."
At 27, Williams is another member of the state's tipping-point cohort. But his eyes are on his students at James E. Shepard Middle School, where he teaches music. Day after day, they came to class eager to talk about the election, he said, and they made up songs about McCain and Obama.
While his classroom is diverse, Williams said most of his students support Obama—no surprise, as more than 75 percent of Durham voters did, too.
"It's not because he's black," Williams said. "It's not because he went to Harvard. It's not because of all the accomplishments he has. Kids look at something totally different than what we do as adults. They're much more sensitive. They're like, 'Sen. Obama has a really nice attitude. His personality is really kind. Sen. McCain kept rolling his eyes.'"
Yet the young students' education in the political process went beyond simply cheering for Obama.
Earlier in the day, one of William's sixth graders had approached him with an observation about the last presidential debate, which she watched on TV: Both candidates had ducked a question.
"She said, 'I never got the real answer.' These kids are really listening and engaged. If they're listening this closely now, imagine what they're going to be like when they're adults and they're voting. It's powerful."