EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the first in a five-part series on young voters.
COLUMBUS — The fastest-growing voting group is a moving target for candidates.
Polls show that young voters are concerned most about the war in Iraq and a host of economic issues, including the ballooning national debt — though they may use none of those issues to determine their vote for president. They tend to make up their minds at the last minute.
Young adults could be shifting their political loyalties continuously from now until Election Day, said Jim Schnell, a professor of political rhetoric at Ohio Dominican University outside Columbus.
They live with a constant barrage of information, he said, delivered on technology that equalizes news footage of the execution of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the latest Britney Spears video.
Their instantaneous access to information also means unprecedented awareness of global environmental and economic forces, which adds to the complexity of young voters’ political decision-making.
“It’s an irony: I find that they will vote, but I find the depth of their awareness of issues is just getting less and less,” Schnell said. “Candidates are going to have a challenge breaking through the clutter.”
Lincoln Nemetz-Carlson, a graduate student in ancient history at The Ohio State University, said he thinks the baby-boomer-controlled mass media are overblowing the changes brought on by technology.
“They’re saying we’re living our lives through Facebook, which I think is being overplayed,” said Nemetz-Carlson, 26, of Williamsburg, Va. “My father gets up and goes to the coffee shop in the morning and reads the newspaper. I get up, make a pot of coffee, and read the news on the Internet.”
U.S. Census figures show that voters ages 18 to 24, though still the smallest voting bloc, have shown larger gains in both registration and participation since 2000 than any other age group.
Among the broader age range of 18- to 29-year-olds targeted by political campaigns and mobilization groups, 4.3 million more voted in 2004 than in 2000. Exceeding that number will be difficult to do in 2008, said Kathleen Barr, director of education for the nonpartisan youth vote initiative Rock The Vote, but signs are that youths are just as engaged in this presidential election.
Maya Enista, chief operating officer for the youth-vote advocacy group Mobilize.org, said she sees signs that candidates are viewing young voters as an important political force heading into the presidential election.
In 2003, only presidential candidate Howard Dean had a youth coordinator. This election Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all have more than one. Other candidates are pushing their messages through youth coalitions formed among college students and young professionals.
“The way we’re being talked to and being treated by the candidates is very respectful,” said Enista, 24. For instance, she said, Obama referred to his 400,000 donors instead of how much money he had raised.
“It’s not even comparable,” Barr said. “It’s a world of difference.”
Statistics show young voters took a hard turn to the left after the divisive 2004 election. They supported President Bush and Democrat Al Gore about evenly in 2000, slightly favored Democrat John Kerry in the last presidential election, then strongly backed Democratic congressional candidates in 2006 over Republican ones.
Stephanie Shimec, who moved to Ohio from North Carolina in 2007 to attend law school, said the political shift in Congress has neutralized the war as an issue for her.
“I think no matter who gets in office, something’s going to be done about the war, so that’s not a big motivator for me,” said Shimec, 22 and a Democrat. “I’m more interested in social issues.”
For Emily Francis, who just completed a graduate degree in marketing and Spanish, it’s the economic issues that will resonate in 2008.
“Since I’m newly entering the job market, those are the issues that are affecting me,” said Francis, 22, who usually votes Republican. “Even though the war’s a big thing, it won’t be a big factor for me. I feel it’s a necessary evil. I don’t think there’s an easy way out, and I’m not sure there’s a quick way out either.”
Neither knows yet which candidate will get her vote.
Though they are predominantly age 60 or older, presidential contenders also are embracing the newest technologies to attract young voters, maintaining casually packaged weblogs and planning text message-based get-out-the-vote drives.
Republican Mitt Romney is drawing backers online with his strapping sons’ Five Brothers Blog, for instance, while Clinton’s campaign is trying its luck with a youth-specific Web site called Hill Blazers, to name just two efforts.
The Obama campaign, whose youth backers have dubbed their movement Barack The Vote after 2004’s Rock The Vote initiative, is going online to organize more traditional activities, such as door-to-door leafleting and phone banks, and to get information to people who don’t pay attention to traditional media outlets, said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Karlo Marcelo, research director for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland, said young voters are more likely to trust a direct message from a candidate or a blogger than a newscast.
“You watched Walter Cronkite deliver the news and you could believe him, it had been vetted,” he said. “Now you don’t know where the information is coming from.”
Shimec agreed, “I’m skeptical of media that present opinion as fact.”
Schnell said political ads also may be ineffective with the young. They’re always braced for a sales job.
Young Americans have chosen to defer marriage to almost age 27 on average. In fact, voters in their first decade of adulthood are more likely today to be unsaddled with spouses, mortgages and children than previous generations, said Connie Flanagan, a professor of youth civic development at Penn State University.
In a recent study, Flanagan found 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 16 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds are still living with their parents, or have moved back home after college. That leaves more time for activism.
“Volunteering and doing service for most of them has been institutionalized. It’s in their high schools, in their communities,” Flanagan said. “There’s a sense that ‘I want to make an impact.’ ”
Enista said she is optimistic that young voters will wade through the deluge and come out to the polls in record numbers again in 2008.
“I’d like 2008 to be the year it’s no longer news. I look forward to it being assumed,” she said. “ ‘Of course, they have a stake in this. Of course, they read the newspapers. Of course, they want their voices to be heard.’ ”