Youth interest in politics on rise

“Don’t trust anyone over 30” was the mantra of political activists in the ’60s and early ’70s. We took to the streets demanding that the voting age be lowered to 18. President Richard Nixon, of all people, supported that movement, saying we were better educated, better informed and more qualified to vote than “many of the older people.” He signed the constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 in 1971. A year later George McGovern’s campaign manager, a youthful Gary Hart, was predicting that 25 million new voters would sweep Nixon out of the White House and end the Vietnam war. Ultimately, Nixon was forced from office and the war did end, but not because of those young voters. Only half of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 1972. The troops had come home and there was little interest in the two old white guys running for president.

Well, the times may be a-changin’, to paraphrase another icon of that era. After dipping to an all-time low of 36 percent in 1996 and 2000, voting among those aged 18 to 25 grew 11 percentage points in 2004, a trend that seems to be continuing. A Harvard University Institute of Politics survey has charted a dramatic change in the attitude of younger Americans since 2000. At that time, young Americans were disconnected from government and the political process, more concerned with stock options than politics. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that, according to John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute. Initially there was a dramatic surge in support for government action, political involvement and President Bush. A lot has happened since then, including Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and increased concern over global warming. Youthful attitudes toward the Bush administration have changed, but interest in political action has not.

According to census data, Della Volpe says, there were more votes cast by those under 30 than those over 65 in 2004. While all the numbers are not in from 2006, youthful voter participation will likely be higher than in any midterm election in history. In at least two critical U.S. Senate races there is compelling evidence that younger voters made the difference in electing Democrats. David King, a Harvard professor who specializes in voting patterns, has done an extensive analysis of the George Allen-Jim Webb race in Virginia and the Conrad Burns-Jon Tester contest in Montana. King looked closely at voting patterns in precincts clustered around college campuses in both states. His conclusion is that younger voters pushed both Webb (D-Va.) and Tester (D-Mont.) over the top, giving control of the Senate to Democrats in the process. (Remember, former Sen. George Allen’s “macaca” gaffe would have been ignored were it not for college students launching a viral campaign on YouTube.)

King points out that the influence of younger voters is often overlooked in immediate post-election coverage. Exit polling is seldom done near college campuses. Forty percent of college students vote absentee and thus are ignored by the media’s exit polls. Only by analyzing census data and doing the sort of precinct-by-precinct studies King does can the influence of younger voters be accurately gauged.

The Harvard studies send a clear message to politicians wanting to reach younger voters. They have a multilateral worldview, believing the U.N. and other countries should take a leadership role in solving international conflicts. After Iraq, they consider the genocide of Darfur the most important foreign policy priority for America. Six in 10 think America is on the wrong track. The environment and healthcare are important issues to them. Religious centrists, about 20 percent of younger voters, are concerned about the moral direction of the country.

So who stands to gain from those Della Volpe calls the “Millennial Generation” in 2008? As of today it is Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who has a 17-point lead on college campuses. Younger voters like his worldview and his position on Iraq. He seems to have a better understanding of the technology that efficiently reaches these voters. Only Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) have youth-vote coordinators among their top management.

It has taken 35 years to prove Richard Nixon right. Younger voters are smart, connected and have proven they can make a difference. They operate outside the political mainstream and communicate below the mass-media radar. But they are engaged and they will vote. Candidates for president ignore their potential and their communications channels at their peril.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com