The fact that many of the candidates directly appealed to the kids this year has certainly made a difference. But, says Thomas Patterson, a Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the young electorate is attracted to this year’s race for the same reasons that participation is up in other demographics.
Voters are now faced with an historic election, in which the two biggest stars of either campaign are a woman and an African-American. For a generation weaned on the legacies of old white men, corrupt Congresses, rat-a-tat-tat kickbacks, and cat fights — a generation that, in both red and blue states, has made a fervent appeal for “change” — the opportunity to cast a ballot for a candidate who is the physical embodiment of that desire is a powerful incentive to trek to the polls.
Still, more mundane factors also may be at play. “This is the first time in a long time that you haven’t had either the incumbent president or incumbent vice-president in the race,” says Patterson, “which means both electorates are engaged.” Add to that the fact that this year’s primary calendar was deliberately frontloaded to pique people’s interest, and you have a recipe for reinvigorated political action.
Above all, though, says Patterson, the principal force driving youth voters this year is, well, a paralyzing fear that this country is going to shit. “People tend to vote a little more when they’re in distress than when they’re not,” he says. When you look at all the critical issues of this election, you see that “very much the political direction of the country is at stake. . . . What’s bad for the country is often good for voting.”
That’s right: for all the millions of bucks nonpartisan voting organizations have spent coercing candidates into rapping with the kids over the years, Patterson maintains the youngest electoral bloc is actually voting in line with the greater electorate — and will turn out whether or not they’ve received their invitations to the frat party at the Electoral College. Their primary concerns, according to a December 2007 Harvard Institute of Politics poll, are the war in Iraq, health care, the environment, the economy, and immigration policy. Not so different from all those turgid adults.
Now that youth-voting organizations have been largely wiped from the slate this year, leaving kids to fend for themselves, it’s tempting to attribute this uptick in involvement to some backhanded form of rebellion. After all, if there’s anything teenagers hate more than adults who try desperately to be cool, it’s adults who try desperately to be cool and tell them what to do.
But with so many important decisions to be made this election, it seems that’s not the case. If you care about the issues at stake, you’re probably going to vote, says Patterson. And if you don’t? “The ones who are less interested, less informed, are probably watching the NCAA basketball game rather than the debate. . . . If they’re not very informed, they’re not very interested.”
That’s where the crux of this year’s changing youth-voter movement may lie. Everyone from members of the media to the candidates and youth-voting organizations is looking for ways to get kids involved, which no one’s yet figured out. But — in spite of or because of their efforts — there have been significant improvements in this election’s landscape that have helped the youth-voting movement to turn a corner.