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.
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?”
“I’ve always looked at them cynically,” says 24-year-old Kade Crocford — a first-time voter and Edwards-turned-Obama supporter from Jamaica Plain — of the myriad youth-voting organizations. She calls them part of a “political machine.”
However they’re viewed, though, Rock the Vote and its cohorts have in recent years made significant gains. In 2004, RTV registered approximately 1.2 million to vote through its Web site. And while the 18 to 29 vote is still proportionally the least invested of any voting demographic, kids came out in droves that election, reversing a 32-year decline.
That’s certainly a cause for celebration. Except many of those first-time voters supported John Kerry in 2004 — and still failed to deliver him the election. So while kids may have cast some 4.3 million more ballots than in the previous presidential contest, their cheerleaders hardly seemed victorious. By the time city workers came to sweep the debris from Kerry’s Copley rally gone wrong, Rock the Vote was $700,000 in debt and about to undergo some major changes in management.
Once Citizen Change, famed for the slogan “Vote or Die,” pretty much died on arrival that same year — after two of the campaign’s celebrity spokespersons, Paris Hilton and Ludacris, forgot to register, and a third, 50 Cent, was barred from participating because he’s a convicted felon — the nail was hammered into the movement’s coffin. It no longer seemed to matter that voter turnout for 18 to 29 year olds was up. The youth vote had made a joke of itself once again.
Today, asked why we haven’t seen a repeat performance of the 2003 Faneuil Hall debate, RTV deputy communication director Shavonne Harding had no idea to what I was referring. “We’re still finalizing our plans for 2008,” she says, adding that they’re about to launch an upcoming Super Tuesday vote drive. At this late in the game, though, most states’ registration dates have already past, which means, for the first time in the 18 years since it was founded, Rock the Vote may be almost entirely absent from the primary process.