Can Teens Swing the Election?

January 13, 2008
By Suzannah Weiss, Syosset, NY

Political candidates are making a larger effort than ever before to target young voters, Capitol Hill reporter Susan Davis said. Still, many doubt that the 2008 election results will reflect this increased campaigning geared toward teens.

"I find it hard to motivate 18-year-olds to do anything," Davis, the lead house (CAP) reporter for the Washington, D.C. newspaper Roll Call, recently told a Georgetown University high school summer journalism class.

This tendency to doubt teens' ability, power, and willingness to have a say in their government is far from rare. Teens and adults see teens as slothful, self-centered, and apathetic. Only 52 percent of teens polled in an informal survey conducted by a Georgetown University journalism class claimed that the teens they know consider politics important to them. Forty-three percent responded that most teens they know do not consider politics important, while the remaining five percent were unsure.

Teens participating in the Georgetown survey also were pessimistic about the young voter turnout in future elections. When asked how campaigns can get more teens to vote, Carlen Froncesa, 17, of R.I. responded, "I don't think there's any effective way."

"Teens will always be the hardest group because most of us are immature, ignorant, or just purely too lazy to get up and vote," Alexandra Williams, 16, of Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. said.

A recent article on even declared generations X and Y are "mostly Zzzz."

What did teens do to deserve this reputation?

Voting rates for young people have historically been low. In the 2004 election, 47 percent of 18- to 24- year-old Americans voted, compared to 72 percent of the 55-and-older demographic, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Although this is less than half of the 18 to 24 group's population, it marks a step forward since the 2000 election, in which 36 percent of this demographic voted. In fact, the 2004 election was the first presidential election since the Vietnam War in which the percentage of 18- to 24-year-old voters increased.

The U.S.'s deficit of young voters is the result of "a mutual cycle of neglect where young people don't vote because no one is paying attention to them," said Mary McClelland of Young Voter Strategies, an organization that persuades young adults to cast their ballots. "No one is paying attention to them because they don't vote."

However, 2008 presidential candidates are picking up on the fact that young people constitute "a demographic that is actually still not politically defined yet," according to Davis. This may explain the recent spillover of campaign advertisements onto websites that teens typically visit.

"The YouTube [] element and the Facebook [] and MySpace [] elements are ways of connecting with young people," Davis said.

Typical 55-year-old voters are far less likely to investigate these venues, let alone change their views based on what they find. Candidates who utilize teen-friendly websites hope to appeal specifically to young people and help break this ongoing cycle of neglect.

Political candidates, especially Republicans, also are targeting political organizations on college campuses. Democrats are currently trying "to get an organization that rivals that of College Republicans," according to Davis, who expects to see candidates follow the precedent of Bill Clinton, the first to distinguish college students and recent college graduates as primary targets for his campaign.

Most political experts agree, despite the public's pessimism, that candidates' increased attention to young voters is likely to pay off. The current young generation "rivals the baby boomer generation in size," said Lindsey Berman of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan grass-roots effort targeting young voters, in an article. Many political scientists believe teens were responsible for the victory of several candidates during the 2006 interim election. Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney credits his victory to college students and other young voters responding to his stances on student loans and other young citizens' issues.

It is not surprising, then, that the teens surveyed at Georgetown chose Democrat Barack Obama as their favorite 2008 presidential candidate. Obama, because of his youth and ability to relate to teens' issues, "gets young people excited about politics," Davis said, and may help drive them toward the polls in record numbers.

Current 18 to 25-year-old voters not only respond to political candidates' campaigns, but also "deal more with world issues than any other generation," according to McClelland. Members of the millennial generation have shown more involvement in service, activism, and politics than any generation before. "We care. We're engaged," McClelland said. "We just have to turn it over to the ballot box."

McClelland may be right. Close to three fourths of teens polled in an informal Georgetown survey showed that said they plan to vote in the 2008 election, and an overwhelming 76 percent said they follow politics.

Teens, however, are far less optimistic about other teens' voting patterns than they are about their own. "There is nothing that can be done to get teens to vote unless you want to start giving money to those who vote" Brian, 17, of Warren, M.I. said.

“Most teenagers aren't intelligent creatures,” Evan, 17, of Warren, M.I. agreed. “What they need to be enticed to vote are very simple terms followed by very immediate action. Kind of like training a dog.”

Yet many teens expressed passionate feelings about voting and about politics in general. "Voting means selecting the right person to keep my home, my country and my family and friends happy and safe," Vito, 17, of Sterling Heights, M.I. said.

The majority of teens surveyed put their faith in the Democratic Party to best accomplish these goals. Over half of teens polled choose to affiliate with the Democrats, while only one fourth identified themselves as Republicans. A July 2007 Democracy Corps/Greenburg Quinlan Rosner survey also found that "young people react with hostility to the Republicans on almost every measure and Republicans and younger voters disagree on almost every major issue of the day."

It is perhaps teens most eager for a change who are likely to turn up at the voting polls and swing the 2008 election. Mike, 17, of P.A. predicted that "the person who's going to win is going to be the farthest away from what President Bush is now. We're going to see a lot of change."

"More diversity in our leaders" and "more acceptance of things that aren't just white, upper class, and heterosexual" are changes in the government that Alexandra Williams, 16, of Cold Spring Harbor, NY would like to see.

Teens surveyed cited the War in Iraq as the issue most likely to lead them to vote. Brenna, 17, of Fair Haven, N.J. feels “personally affected by Iraq because I am about to turn 18, and it's scary to think that some of my friends could be drafted."

The runners-up for issues most likely to make teens vote were global warming and foreign policy. Many teens also expressed strong feelings regarding healthcare, immigration, the economy, same sex marriage, and reproductive rights.

"We should put more government funding into the studies of global warming," Michael, 16, of Warren, M.I. said. "We need to do more research and we need to find an alternate fuel source."

Hannah, 17, of Los Angeles, C.A., is concerned about reproductive rights: "I'm pro-choice because I don't feel like old men in the white house should be making decisions for teenage girls."

Elana of Warren, M.I. wants to see more teens involved in politics in general. "If you think something is stupid," Messesova, 18, said, "then for God's sakes, change it! That's what teens must realize. They have to change what they don't like."

Experts agree that teens today have the power, education, and passion necessary to make changes in their government through the voting process. Whether or not they will exercise this power will reveal itself come November 2008.

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