February 4, 2008

Candidates Tap National Youth Vote

Print More

Generation Y: the Echo Boomers, the Millennial Generation, the children of the Baby Boomers. Whatever the title, the youth of today, formerly labeled apathetic, unreachable teens antithetical to their activist parents who drove the cultural and political revolutions of the Vietnam War era, are hot commodities for an unexpected demographic: the 2008 presidential hopefuls.
As the primary season is heating up, the Millennials are making history. Forty-four million Americans aged 18 to 29, representing approximately a quarter of the nation’s electorate, will be eligible to vote in 2008 according to an article by youth voting expert Heather Smith. Consequently, gaining the youth vote has become a defining feature of both Democratic and Republican candidates’ campaigns.
The results of a longitudinal study conducted at the University of Michigan indicate why such a goal is worth the effort — both in the short and long terms. The study reveals that approximately two-thirds of American voters who remember their first presidential vote “have held the same partisan tie for all or almost all of their adult lives.” Furthermore, an article in a 1994 issue of Political Behavior states that 56 percent of such voters “have never crossed the party lines.” For candidates looking to continue a successful career in politics, getting the support of fresh voters is key.
Prof. Ross Brann, near eastern studies, aware of this voting trend, considers it ample evidence as to why politicians should target young voters. Brann, who writes blogs for The Sun, stated in an e-mail: “When young people do not vote the first time around (cynicism, apathy, too busy, or whatever) they tend not to become involved thereafter. So it is critical [for candidates] to invest time and energy in speaking to the 18-25 year old age group and its unique set of perspectives, interests and concerns.”
Democratic candidates Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), as well as Republican candidates Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, have emerged as frontrunners among the nation’s youth, according to Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government.
Whether through the Internet — updating Facebook profiles, uploading YouTube videos, or creating Myspace pages — or through live campaigning like speaking at colleges and youth-oriented events such as concerts, catering to the tastes of the young voters has become a defining feature of the recent wave of political campaigns.
And as indicated by post-polling data, the candidates’ efforts have paid off. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Living and Engagement (CIRCLE), youth participation in the New Hampshire primary rose sharply — jumping to 43 percent in 2008 from 18 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2000. These 51,218 voters represent 18 percent of all New Hampshire primary participants. A similar trend was apparent in the Iowa caucuses as the youth turnout rate rose to 13 percent from 4 percent in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000, and in Florida, where the youth turnout rate of 13 percent more than tripled the 2000 rate. In South Carolina, the number of young voters tripled from the 2004 election as well.
Sanders attributes the surge in youth political involvement to the diversity of candidates running and the seemingly open race that has emerged in both parties.
“When a country gets bogged down, people are willing to take risks,” said Sanders, who feels the 2008 youth vote is largely a result of the seemingly widespread enthusiasm for Obama.
She likens the young support for Obama to that of former president John F. Kennedy Jr., former Vermont governor Howard Dean when he ran for president in 2004 and former president Bill Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign. “People are looking ahead. They feel misled and want to try something different. They are looking for someone new and fresh, and then get swept up in it.”
Obama’s appeal to the young voters has paid off. Until Florida, he had won the youth vote in all the states that had Democratic nominating contests: he got 67 percent of the Democratic youth vote in South Carolina, 59 percent in Nevada, 51 percent in New Hampshire and 57 percent in Iowa. In Michigan, although only Hillary’s name appeared on the ballot, the majority of young voters voted “uncommitted” rather than for Hillary, according to The Nation. In Florida, he came just short of Clinton, who beat him by one percent, garnering 44 percent of the Democratic young vote next to his 43 percent.
For young GOP voters, Sanders claims McCain and Huckabee are gaining support from the nation’s youth. “McCain is a maverick, he has an appeal,” she said. “Huckabee has pulled in Republican religious people.”
According to Ahmed Salem ’08, chair of the Cornell College Republicans, Republican candidates have not tailored their campaign towards younger voters as much as some Democrats have. However, involvement in the elections among GOP voters on campus is still strong. “Students have started groups, and some went to campaign for candidates,” he said.
The most telling sign of student political involvement, however, is the constant conversation about the upcoming primary and election. “I have heard a lot of political talk on campus. The election is a huge part of campus discussions, which is a great thing,” Salem said.
Neither the College Republicans nor the Cornell Democrats have backed a specific candidate. According to Salem, his organization “plays a facilitating role, encouraging dialogue.”
Similarly, the C.U. Dems, according to President Rady Lariar ’08, “represents the entire Democratic party” rather than a specific candidate. “We have been involved in student campaigning efforts for both Clinton and Obama, but as an organization, we remain neutral,” said Lariar. In the fall, the Cornell Democrats held a voter registration drive and registered several hundred voters on campus.
“We really encourage students to get involved in politics and vote,” he said.
Tomorrow’s Super Tuesday, when more than 22 states will hold nominating contests for one or both political parties, could be a turning point in the battle for presidential hopefuls as they fight for a spot on the 2008 ballot. With contests in delegate-heavy states like New York, California and New Jersey, the youth vote could be a deciding factor in which candidate gets their party’s nomination for the presidency.
As candidates continue to rally young voters on their behalf, the question of whether the 2008 youth vote is the start of a new trend in political activism, or whether it is a short-lived fad. According to Sanders, the involvement among young voters is “not long term.” She said that it “depends on the candidates” and whether or not they are appealing to young voters. “A candidate-outsider always has support and enthusiasm, young voters support people not part of a party establishment.”