‘Youthquake’ could shake up the election on Tuesday
Is 2008 the year of the young voter?
Lots of signs point in that direction. Consider:
• Barack Obama’s rock star-style rallies on college campuses across the country (including one attended by 15,000 to 20,000 at Michigan State University on Oct. 2).
• A surge in registrations among all voters, including those younger than 30.
• A trend that saw 2004 and 2006 bring an uptick in young voter participation after two decades of decline.
Obama, with his relative youth, cool and intense outreach, is getting most of the credit.
Lauren Meunier, 20, a junior at MSU, said: “I feel like on a college campus that almost every kid is an Obama kid.”
Then again, maybe not.
Despite all the hullabaloo about young people and the 2008 election, as a general rule, 18-to-late twentysomethings don’t care about voting as much as their elders.
The Gallup Organization, which has been tracking voter behavior for more than half a century, reported last week that registration, interest in the election and likelihood of voting remains measurably lower among 18- to 29-year-olds than among those older than 30. The under 30 “share of the likely voting electorate … appears as if it will be similar to what it has been in past elections,” Gallup’s pollsters said.
Even in 2004, when interest in the election spiked among young people, only 49% of eligible voters younger than 30 went to the polls. That compared with 68% among those older than 30.
Activists pushing voter participation by young people argue this year is different.
Rock the Vote says it has polling that indicates 87% of young people are planning to vote this year. Gallup’s polling, by contrast, found only 78% of those younger than 30 said they were even registered. In Michigan, where an estimated 98% of the voting age population is registered, the youth number is likely higher.
Mark Grebner, a Democrat and East Lansing-based political consultant, said he is convinced 2008 will be a banner year for young people in politics and, more importantly, a transformational year as well — one in which a generation of committed partisan Democrats is forged.
“I think things have changed dramatically from four years ago and eight years ago. This may not be 1972, but it looks like it will be close,” Grebner said.
That year was the watermark for young voters — 55% turnout. It was the first presidential election for 18-year-olds; the Vietnam-era draft was still on, though abating, and the Democratic candidate ran as antiwar and pro-kid — or at least those who were antiwar.
The problem for Democrats is that their candidate in 1972, George McGovern, got clobbered. That’s why the Obama analogy usually shifts at some point from McGovern to earlier generational figures, like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.
Still, there’s no question the Obama campaign appears to be getting it done on campus. At the University of Michigan, College Democrats have registered 4,667 new voters this election compared with 1,500 in the 2006 gubernatorial election. At MSU, the Obama Facebook group lists 543 members. MSU Facebookers for McCain numbers 218.
Nathaniel Styer, chairman of the U-M Democrats, said the key now is to make sure the new registrants show up to vote. Among the inducements at U-M is a midnight rally on Nov. 3 at the Michigan Union, featuring a performance by a well-known local band and speeches by local politicians, said Styer, 21, of Holland.
U-M junior Hannah Lieberman, a volunteer for Voice Your Vote on Election Day, said: “You can’t turn your head without seeing something about the election. I think the youth are going to come out in incredible numbers.”
Just this week, the Obama campaign added a new U-M field office, a few blocks from the Diag. The building will serve as a staging location for the Obama campaign Get Out the Vote effort.
Measuring interest and activity off-campus is more difficult.
Grebner, the East Lansing political consultant, said it’s important to remember that most Americans under 25 aren’t living in college towns. Many are still home with their parents, where they usually share the political attitudes of their parents, he said. Or they’re on their own, working and socializing, some of them disaffected and among those least likely to have interest in politics.
Dave Dulio, a professor of American politics at Oakland University, said publicity on past low youth turnout could serve as impetus to get more young people out, but he hasn’t seen signs that will happen.
Young voters “tend to think their vote doesn’t matter a whole lot,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Dulio said he hasn’t seen that much activity on campus.
“We see folks wearing T-shirts and the typical stuff but nothing major,” he said. “It’s really disappointing.”
But Carrie White, a 21-year-old senior at MSU from Marquette, said she expects a high level of participation from young people. And she’s happy about it, even though as the MSU chairwoman for the McCain campaign it may not be in her best interest.
Among those who believes turnout among young people will surge thanks mostly to Obama is University of Illinois political scientist John Jackson.
In his 2004 U.S. Senate race, Obama won every Illinois county that was home to a university, Jackson said. This year, in addition to having generational appeal, he is aided by the unpopularity of the opposition party, which is especially high among young people, he said.
And if all other appeals fail, voting can be sold to young people as an excuse to skip class.
Lieberman said missing class shouldn’t be needed to make it to the polls but if it happens, professors should understand.
“It’s justified,” she said. “It’s your civic duty.”