Every four years, it's the same story: Presidential candidates talk up the importance of attracting young voters and engaging them in the political process. Activists put together elaborate and expensive programs to drive young people to the polls. And every four years, Election Day data brings fresh disappointment: young Americans don't vote. â€œYoung people today are far less likely to be voting than their older brothers and sisters, or their parents when they were young,â€? says David King, research director of political studies at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
With the exception of a slight boost in 1992, when a rare three-way race captured their attention(President George H.W. Bush ran against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot), turnout among young voters has been stagnant or declining for decades. Since 1972, the first presidential election after the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21, election participation among 18- to 24-year-olds has fallen by nearly a third, according to the University of Maryland's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. This drop, to 37 percent in 2000 from 52 percent in 1972, is larger than the 4 percent slide among Americans overall.
It's not that young Americans don't place any importance on casting ballots. In an exclusive survey for American Demographics, polling firm Zogby International of Utica, N.Y., found that among 257 respondents aged 18 to 29, 97 percent say that it is important for citizens in a democracy to vote. Of those likely to vote, nearly 4 in 10 (37 percent) say they believe it is their duty as a citizen and 25 percent say they registered to vote in order to make a difference or have their voice heard.
But a number of barriers seem to be keeping young people from participating in elections. Only about half of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are registered to vote, according to Census Bureau data. A Youth Vote 2004 survey found that most of those who are not registered simply feel they don't know enough about the issues and candidates to register or vote. That may be because they're cynical. Zogby's survey found that more than 1 in 3 (35 percent) say that their vote matters somewhat or â€œnot at all.â€? Fewer than half (48 percent) think that it matters â€œvery much.â€? Democrats are less likely than Republicans to think that their vote counts (54 percent to 72 percent) â€” a possible aftereffect of the 2000 Florida debacle, Zogby suggests.
What's more, young Americans put their energies into civic activities other than voting. An October 2003 poll of 1,202 college students conducted for Harvard's Institute of Politics found that 65 percent say they've volunteered for community service within the past year. â€œStudents continue to overwhelmingly choose to affect change in their local communities, rather than in the political arena,â€? the pollster's report concludes.
Could this change in the 2004 election? â€œIt may be different this year,â€? says Zogby, who points to two factors that may help: â€œYou've got candidates that are targeting young people, and you've also got a war.â€? Howard Dean, for example, surged to early front-runner status thanks in part to his anti-war appeals to the young. Some observers also postulate that the closely contested 2000 presidential race and a post-Sept. 11 surge of patriotism will draw more young people to politics. A tight race would help, too. A few early signs suggest the turnaround in turnout might actually be happening. In January's Iowa caucuses, voters under 30 made up 17 percent of caucus-goers, up from 9 percent in 2000. On the other hand, under-30 voters accounted for 14 percent of ballots in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, up only slightly from 13 percent in 2000.
If they do go to the polls, young Americans are a large enough group to carry some serious sway. More than 1 in every 8 eligible voters is between the ages of 18 and 24. Young voters also tend not to have strong partisan or candidate loyalties, experts say, making them potential swing votes and attractive targets for campaigns. â€œWhile security moms (soccer moms who are concerned with national security) and NASCAR dads attract time and resources, another powerful voting bloc lies untapped,â€? the Youth Vote Coalition reportedly wrote in a pamphlet mailed to political consultants in late 2003.
A host of groups are now working to change that, and studies have shown that volunteer mobilization campaigns can make a difference. â€œEach successfully completed call to a young registrant raises the probability of turnout by roughly 5 percentage points,â€? Yale Professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber concluded in a 2001 study. Face-to-face contact is even more effective.
When they do align themselves politically and ideologically, young Americans stack up somewhat differently than past generations. Surprisingly, they are split fairly evenly along party lines, with about a third each claiming to be Democrat, Republican and Independent. That makes this generation more conservative than previous ones. â€œThe Democratic Party can't count on young people to turn out for them, or if they turn out, to vote for them,â€? says King.
So what issues are capturing the attention of America's youth? In many cases they are the same issues that older Americans care about. In the American Demographics poll, about 1 in 4 said the economy is the most important issue in the 2004 election, and nearly 1 in 5 cited the war in Iraq. Education and its costs are also prime concerns.
In other areas, though, young voters are different from older voters. Taxes, a perennially heated election topic, weren't an important issue for young voters in our survey. Only 3 percent of them thought abortion, another controversial subject, was important in this election. And a mere 5 percent thought health care was important, although health insurance and Medicare dominated early campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire. College students surveyed in Harvard's Institute of Politics poll were more likely to support President Bush than the general population, even though they were also more critical of the president's policy on Iraq and more likely to favor pulling troops out of Iraq.
Those positions don't mean all that much when it comes to casting ballots. Instead, young people tend to vote based on fuzzier qualities such as leadership, authenticity and integrity, experts say. In the Zogby poll for American Demographics, 43 percent of young voters cited credibility or honesty as the traits most important to them in a candidate, and nearly 20 percent said they looked most at ethics. Only 15 percent mentioned domestic policies as being most crucial to them. That may explain why the Institute of Politics found that college students were still very supportive of the president despite their concerns about the war in Iraq.
Ultimately, it's still unclear whether young people will turnout at the polls in greater numbers this year. Many experts say earlier and more comprehensive education in civics is needed to make a real change. They say that politicians' talk of courting young voters generally remains just that: talk. â€œThere's always rhetoric about reaching out to young voters,â€? says Harvard's King, â€œbut the campaigns themselves haven't done it.â€? In part, that's because getting young voters to the ballot boxes costs three times as much as doing so with older voters. Combined with the low turnout rates for the young, it all leads to a Catch 22: Politicians don't court young Americans because they don't vote, and young Americans don't vote because politicians don't court them. That's the way it's been for generations. That's the situation that will have to change if this group of Americans are to return to the polls.
Yuval Rosenberg lives in New York. He covered the 2000 elections for Newsweek.com.