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August 16, 2004

will the young folks vote?

There are reasons to think that youth turnout will increase in 2004, after thirty years of decline (pdf). Young people are clearly more attentive to news and issues this year, and more convinced that voting is important. Just for example, according to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, half of college students said in April 2000 that they would “definitely” vote. Four years later, that proportion has increased to 62 percent. As I recently told the (Spokane) Spokesman Review, "those in Generation Y – an age bracket generally considered to include those born in the 1980s and later – have grown up in an era of serious news. ... They're clearly paying more attention and are expressing more interest in voting."

Furthermore, political parties and interest groups seem to be shifting their campaign tactics and technologies in promising ways. Since the 1970s, they have generally preferred to target likely voters whose political views they know. In my New Progressive Era book (p. 127), I quoted several campaign consultants' advertisements that made sales pitches like this one:

Targeting Contributors, Targeting Voters, Targeting Issues, and Automated Dialing to Targeted Homes .... Automated dialing can be used both to identify supporters and key issues, and ... on election day to maximize key voter turnout. Sophisticated databasing techniques including desktop mapping are used to deliver mail and voice messages to specific constituency groups.

It's most efficient to target mail and phone messages to specific addresses, but television and radio ads can also be aimed at narrow demographic groups. Unfortunately, young voters are never on the target lists. They always vote at lower rates than older people, and their voting preferences are unknown. A vicious circle results: young people are not sent campaign messages, so they don't vote, so they are viewed as even less desirable targets.To make matters worse, no one needs their labor, because computers and technical experts can handle databases and mailings all by themselves.

This vicious cycle may be turning virtuous. The parties are in a deadlock, so they need every vote they can get. People are throwing away mass mailings and TIVO-ing their way past campaign commercials, so those techniques are less and less effective. Rigorous experiments conducted by Donald Green, Alan Gerber, and others have proved beyond a doubt that young people will vote if real human beings call them or knock on their doors, encouraging them to participate. Although the parties keep their precise campaign tactics secret, I have it on good authority that both parties, led by the Republicans, are pouring resources into face-to-face campaigning. And they are including youth on their target lists and as campaign workers.

Meanwhile, non-profit groups--some ideological and some interested only in youth participation--are spending many millions of dollars on advertising, events, and door-to-door canvassing aimed at youth.

This is the good news, and it's good enough that I'm hopeful about youth turnout in November. There are, however, some clouds in the sky. Most of the positive factors were already in place earlier this year, yet youth turnout in the Democratic primaries (pdf) was basically flat. Whatever major social forces have depressed youth participation in the United States and Europe may not vanish so quickly. I believe these factors include the weakness of parties and ideologies, the pervasive cynicism of the news media, and the tendency of schools to abandon their civic missions.

Also, candidates, parties, and ideological groups are clearly going to emphasize "battleground" states this year. Although they may spend money on door-to-door campaigning, they won't bother with California, New York, or Texas, large states where the result is considered certain. That's bad news for turnout. The question is how narrowly they define the "battleground." If they continue to see quite a few states as contested, then turnout should be as good or better than in 2000. If the list of swing states shortens, participation could actually decline.

Finally, I'm convinced that persuading people about the generic importance of voting is only one step in a two-step sales pitch. Prospective voters also have to decide to support or defeat a particular candidate. Youth turnout surged in 1992, and there were two reasons for that temporary increase: Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Both men attracted millions of marginal voters who would not have participated without them. It remains to be seen whether any of this year's candidates can motivate youth as strongly. Again, they don't have to be seen as heroes; sometimes voters turn out to defeat a perceived villain. But young people must feel that there is a clear choice. If the next ten weeks plant the idea that the 2004 race involves a flip-flopping professional politician versus an incompetent frat boy (who share the same positions on Iraq and the economy), then I won't be optimistic about youth turnout.

p.s. Surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press are showing that the percentage of young people who are registered to vote is flat compared to 2000.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:29 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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