If you yell “This is the year!” to just about anyone in Massachusetts, they’ll smile and assume you’re talking about the Red Sox, about the curse of the Bambino being lifted.
But yell it at the Kennedy School, and if anyone at the Institute of Politics or the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy is within earshot, they’ll understand you’re talking about the November election. This is the year everyone is predicting that young adults in the United States will show up to the polls and vote, breaking a 30-year downward trend of not voting that has plagued almost all Americans, but especially those under 30.
Could it be true? Is the nation’s lost generation of voters actually going to step up to the plate?
Could this be the year?
Tom Patterson thinks so. Patterson has been director of the Shorenstein Center’s Vanishing Voter Project since 1999. This past spring, the project conducted a national random survey of adults and discovered something that piqued their interest: young adults were substantially more involved in the 2004 presidential race than they were in the 2000 race. In fact, 42 percent said they were paying a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of attention to the campaign — a huge jump from their 2000 survey, when only 13 percent said they were tuning in closely.
“If this trend continues,” Patterson writes in the survey summary, “higher turnout in November is nearly a certainty.”
Jennifer Phillips MPA 1995, national director of the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, a project of the Institute of Politics (IOP) aimed at encouraging college students to be more politically engaged, agrees. So does Dan Glickman, outgoing director of the IOP. In a biannual survey they did in July on American college campuses, the project found that 75 percent of polled students said they would “definitely” be voting in November — up from 59 percent in the previous year’s survey and a far cry from the 32 percent who voted in 2000 and 1996.
“I’m hoping this year will be different,” Phillips says.
Nonprofits, the War, and Jobs Why the change? Have the appeals by rockers, rappers, punk musicians, and actors on MTV and in acceptance speeches at award shows finally made an impact on young people?
Alison Byrne Fields MPP 2004, a former director at Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit that uses pop culture to make political participation cool, thinks that these kinds of appeals play an important role in getting the attention of candidates and the media, as well as initially getting young people interested. But, she says, it’s unlikely that they’ve caused huge numbers to get off the couch and into the voting booth.
Surprisingly, she says, one of the biggest influences this year could be the explosion of mostly partisan advocacy groups working to increase voter turnout.
“More money is being invested in a grassroots way,” she says, referring to 527s. “America is coming together.”
527s are tax-exempt organizations not affiliated with a particular candidate or party that engage in political activities like voter registration drives. In the past few years, they’ve burst onto the scene in a big way, and many, like MoveOn.org, GOPAC, and punkvoter.com, make no bones about their agendas: they’re either pro-Bush or pro-Kerry, and they want to influence what happens in November.
“There is more partisan energy than I’ve ever seen before,” says Ryan Friedrichs MPP 2003, campaign director for the Youth Voter Alliance, a 527 based in Washington, DC. “The president, whether you agree or disagree with him, is a uniting force. He certainly united the left. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Also a factor in stirring up interest is the current political and economic climate. Fifty-seven percent of young adults polled by the Vanishing Voter Project felt that the election would have a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of impact on the future of the country. In 2000, only 33 percent felt this way.
“I think we’ll see an uptake in people under the age of 30 voting,” says Glickman, “and the war in Iraq is the primary reason.”
The July IOP study found that support for the war among college students had dropped from 50 percent in March to 42 percent in July, while President Bush’s approval rating fell 4 points, from 44 percent to 40 percent.
Friedrichs isn’t surprised. “Young people are bearing the brunt of the war, as they do in all wars,” he says. “They now know people who have died, and that matters.”
The economy also matters. “They’re highly conscious of the need to find jobs,” says Byrne Fields.
Patterson says that an economic recession was one of the factors behind a 5 percent increase in voter turnout in 1992 — the only spike since 1972.
“I think we’re probably dealing with forces at least as strong this time,” he says.
Election Jackpot? No matter the influences, the sheer number of young people in this country is huge — certainly enough to make a major dent in an election. According to the U.S. Census, there are about 48 million Americans between 18 and 29 and almost 69 million if you toss in the 30- to 34-year-olds. Within the youth population, the biggest group to vote — college students — number 9.5 million.
“When you play the slots in Vegas, when you get two of something, it’s good, but you need that third one,” says Glickman. “That extra one causes you to go over the top. Young people have been ignored for so long, but even if you brought in a chunk of them, you could have an impact, especially on key states.”
True, says Byrne Fields, but along with the positive — big numbers — comes the negative — unpredictability.
“It may be an election jackpot, but it’s also a crap shoot,” she says. “If you reach a 75-year-old voter, they’ll show up on Election Day. With a 22-year-old, you may inspire them, but will they know where their polling place is? Will they show up?”
Young voters are also prone to changing their minds.
“They tend to be more easily swayed,” she says. “Not that they’re idiots, but most aren’t going to register with one party and stay that way forever.”
In April 2003, for instance, 34 percent of students polled by the IOP said they would likely vote for Bush, compared with 32 percent for the Democratic candidate. A year later, John Kerry held a 10-point lead over Bush.
Tragically Hip Capturing the masses won’t happen automatically for candidates though, says Glickman. He cautions them not to tailor their strategy toward preconceived “youth issues.”
“There is no real set of issues that young people are attracted to. There’s the war and jobs, and polls show that young people generally have a higher interest in the environment, but they care about the same things that everyone else does,” he says. “If politicians try to patronize young people by talking to them exclusively about, say, college tuition rates, they won’t succeed.”
Instead, a newly published guide for candidates put out by the IOP called Are You Talking to Me? urges politicians to leave the script at home and keep it simple, positive, and real.
And they don’t need to be hip, says Phillips.
“Young people want to know who you are,” she says. “Tell the story. They want to know the movie you like, but it doesn’t have to be Old School. It can be the first movie you took your wife to.”
“Remember, this is a generation that has been marketed to to no end,” says Friedrich. “They need to believe first. They have a high B.S. sensor.”
As Glickman points out, “There isn’t going to be a ‘perfect’ candidate out there, but at the same time, you have a whole generation of Americans you can hope to nurture.”
And nurturing, say some, is the real key to increasing the youth vote.
To be fair, young Americans haven’t been the only potential voters bypassing the ballot boxes. According to Patterson in his 2002 book, The Vanishing Voter, “The [overall] voting rate has fallen in nearly every presidential election for four decades. An economic recession and Ross Perot’s spirited third-party bid sparked a healthy 5 percent increase in 1992, but turnout in 1996 plunged to 49 percent, the first time since the 1920s that it had slipped below 50 percent.”
This is a big problem. “The young learn from their elders, and if the elders aren’t voting, why should they?” says Byrne Fields. “If it’s not a behavior that you’re learning at home, it’s not a behavior you’re going to continue.”
Patterson writes that by the time people are in their 30s, many of their political habits have already taken root.
“Although people often vote with greater frequency as they age, the inclination to vote — and typically, the first actual vote — occurs within the first decade or so of eligibility.”
The “point of vulnerability” is childhood and early adulthood, he writes. “A boost or disruption at this stage can tip the individual toward or away from a lifetime of voting.”
Registration Is Not Enough Is voting really all that hard to do? As Patterson writes, “In most locations, it takes about as long to drive to a video store and rent a couple of movies.”
But some students, regardless of free time, simply don’t understand the process, points out the IOP’s October 2003 survey.
“Of the 60 percent who said they planned on voting, at least a quarter either didn’t know where their polling place was or how to get an absentee ballot,” says David King, associate professor of public policy and interim associate director at the IOP.
The Internet has helped as thousands of Web sites offer instant voting information and let people download the registration form. The IOP also developed a state-by-state guide for registering, complete with charts on each state’s deadlines and procedures for absentee voting.
What remains to be seen is the answer to this big question: How do you move from registration to mobilization? “That’s the big challenge,” says Phillips.
Coming straight out and asking students to vote is critical. One IOP survey found that 92 percent of college students said more direct contact with politicians would be a “very” or “somewhat effective” way to get them involved. Many studies, including Friedrichs’s PAE, which he prepared while a student, note that door-to-door outreach is the most influential and cost-effective.
There’s also the chicken and egg problem. Politicians have historically ignored young people because they don’t vote (and, says Patterson, because they’re expensive for candidates to go after) and young people don’t vote because politicians ignore them.
“It’s like your parents telling you to go to the prom, but if no one is asking you, that makes it tough,” says Byrne Fields. “The candidates need to make the first step, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because political parties are dying off. They’re going to become less relevant. We need to figure out a way to bring young people back in.
“There are enough people on this side pushing them,” she says, referring to the entertainers, the 527s, and groups like the ones at the Kennedy School. “They need to be pulled, as well.”
The pulling may not be as hard as candidates think. Young people volunteer at much higher rates than the general population: 74 percent in an IOP survey said they volunteer at least once a month. The problem is that 85 percent surveyed by the IOP said they agree with the statement that “volunteering in the community is easier than volunteering in politics.”
“The key is making the turn from volunteering to voting, to showing them that it’s all connected,” says Friedrichs. “It’s like they clean up the river, but they don’t realize that they still have to deal with why the river is dirty in the first place.”
Does It Matter? In 1997, the Atlantic Monthly included a story on democracy that said, “apathy, after all, often means that the political situation is healthy enough to be ignored. The last thing America needs is more voters — particularly badly educated and alienated ones — with a passion.”
Glickman doesn’t buy into this argument.
“Virtually every major social change that occurs in this country is because of young people. The civil rights movement. The New Deal. When you’re younger, you’re more free to think and to challenge. It’s good and healthy for democracy to have these forces of questioning in the system early.”
According to Patterson, new voters are also critical to closing the widening of the “participation gap” between the nation’s more and less affluent citizens.
“This year, younger adults with a college background are nearly as attentive to the election as their older peers,” he writes. “However, for most of the noncollege young, the campaign might as well be happening in another country. They are tuned out of and turned off by election politics.”
Which is why new, young voters matter, Friedrichs says.
“This election is going to be made by those who normally don’t vote,” he says. “And looking beyond just this election, we need to reverse this 30-year slide. For me, that’s getting past the voters you think can help and talking to the voters whose seats have been removed from the table.”