Youth in the booth

The frat party at the Electoral College may be over . So why are the kids still turning out?
By VANESSA CZARNECKI  |  January 30, 2008

YOUNG AMERICANS: After the youth vote carried Barack Obama to an overwhelming victory in Iowa, Hillary Clinton traded in her old guard and started courting the under-30 electorate in New Hampshire.

Sometime since 1976 — just four years after 18 year olds were granted the right to vote but decided they’d rather not — the youth movement has become a joke. It’s hard to pinpoint when things went awry, but its credibility problem probably has something to do with Madonna’s spanking heard ’round the world and the WWE telling us to “smack down” at the ballot box.

When it burst on to the scene in 1990, Rock the Vote and its pledge to engage young voters, regardless of party affiliation, seemed admirable enough. But in the years that have followed, the nonpartisan organization and its fellow young-voters leagues have begun to act like the obstinate kids they court — seeking lowest common denominators, demanding respect, and forever declaring, with not an ounce of discernable irony, that this is the year they’ll show the world what they’re made of.

Then they don’t.

At least, that’s how the youth-vote escapade always used to play out.

After years of being told to choose or lose, declare themselves, or vote lest they die, 18 to 29 year olds nearly tripled their participation in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. In New Hampshire, they doubled their turnout from 2004. So if the rest of the primaries follow suit — and they might, judging by this past weekend’s turnout in South Carolina, where participation of young Democrats also skyrocketed — this really is the year that youth voters will shake up the election results.

“As many people under 30 showed up as senior citizens,” wrote Tim Dickinson of the Iowa caucuses on Rolling Stone’s National Affairs blog. “That’s fucking nuts is what that is. That’s the Rock the Vote political wet dream that never ever comes true . . . actually coming true.”

Funny. Many of the youth-voting groups who’ve long proclaimed this day would come are nowhere in sight.

Rock off
As the cool poster-granddaddy for the get-out-the-vote youth movement, Rock the Vote has received its fair share of flak — partly for its failure to deliver, and refusal to admit defeat, but also for seeming to lower the level of political discourse.

Without candidates or issues to rally behind, their task is a difficult one. But rather than encourage substantive debate, the organization has instead focused on convincing candidates to “hang” with the kids — hoping to drive young voters to the polls by making the electoral process seem hip.

It’s a strategy, lately co-opted by so many others, that has produced some memorable, and groan-inducing, moments. But stirring political dialogue? Not so much.

The fact that you now Bill Clinton’s undergarment of choice is “usually briefs,” for instance, is thanks to a 1992 Rock the Vote/MTV presidential forum. And in 2003, when RTV teamed up with CNN to host a Democratic primary debate at Faneuil Hall, the most memorable moment was a video in which General Wesley Clark bumped knuckles with a bearded cool guy after name-dropping OutKast. The question of the night: a CNN-planted “Do you prefer PCs or Macs?”

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