Iraq, Internet lure youth to politics

Less apathy is no guarantee of votes

By Tim Jones and Flynn McRoberts, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune national correspondent Tim Jones reported from Madison, and staff reporter Flynn McRoberts reported from Iowa City

December 14, 2003

MADISON, Wis. -- The Dean-for-president placard on the wooden pole was bent like a taco as Mitchel Wallace, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin, struggled against a stiff wind and horizontal snow.

"Drop Bush, not bombs," Wallace bellowed repeatedly one day last week as scores of students walked across the library mall, most of them ignoring the leaflets he and another volunteer for Howard Dean were passing out.

Every four years, young people eagerly flock to presidential candidates, performing the campaign scut work and promoting an image of youthful exuberance for the cause. And nearly every four years, a majority of 18- to 24-year-olds, a bloc of 24 million people, don't vote.

But as the presidential campaigns prepare for caucuses and primaries starting next month, there are signs--some anecdotal, others measured by polls--of rising and uncharacteristic interest in politics among young people. While the war in Iraq, the environment and the economy are major issues fueling interest in the presidential campaign, the Internet has emerged as a powerful campaign tool allowing young people unprecedented access to the political debate.

No one is suggesting that young people will suddenly start voting in the same proportions as their parents and grandparents, who are about twice as likely to vote as the younger generation.

However, the combination of issues and technology has altered the campaign dynamic in ways that could stimulate the turnout of young voters, who have a three-decade history of lethargy.

A recent poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for MTV found that 4 in 10 respondents age 18 to 24 say they definitely will vote in next year's presidential election. That figure is 30 percent higher than the response from four years ago.

"Clearly the war is of huge concern to young voters, who are wondering if they are going to have to fight and die in Iraq. This is something that this generation thought they'd never have to participate in," said Ian Rowe, vice president of strategic partnerships at MTV.

"The drip, drip, drip of casualties is making a hit," Rowe said. "They realize that foreign policy is something that's not abstract [and] only happening to other people."

Linda Sax, who directs the University of California, Los Angeles' annual survey of the nation's students entering four-year colleges and universities, said: "We're seeing evidence that the severe decline has started to recover. We think the significant decline bottomed out in 2000."

The evidence of new interest in politics has been building since the disputed 2000 presidential election, Sax said, because the Florida recount undercut the public cynicism that individual votes don't count.

Two recent surveys from Harvard University's Institute of Politics found that college students are politically independent and in position to become the critical swing votes in next year's presidential election. Eight in 10 students said they will definitely or probably vote next year, one study said.

Surge in interest

In Iowa, where the Jan. 19 caucus vote is the first test for the nine Democratic presidential contenders, election officials say they are noticing a surge in interest among young people. Tom O'Neill, the deputy commissioner of elections for Dubuque County, home to three colleges, said voter registration among college students is up.

O'Neill, who has run elections for 16 years, said he expects interest to increase even more when college students in Dubuque return from their winter break early next month. "It hasn't peaked yet," O'Neill said.

The youth vote has always been a slumbering giant. Even after the Vietnam War era political clamor to lower the voting age to 18 from 21, young people did not embrace the new right with overwhelming vigor.

Fifty-five percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots in the 1972 presidential election, the first for the lowered voting age. With the exception of an uptick in the 1992 election, turnout has not topped 50 percent since then. It was 42 percent in 2000.

That year, according to Voter News Service exit polls, support for George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore was divided almost evenly among 18- to 29-year-olds. But a poll last month from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicates that Bush has lost significant support among young voters, with 18- to 29-year-olds leaning Democratic 60 percent to 40 percent.

Will numbers translate?

Responding to a poll, though, is not the same as voting, and there is ample reason to interpret signs of renewed political interest among young people with caution. The same Pew poll found that among 18- to 21-year-olds, only 42 percent are registered to vote.

"We're seeing a little more intensity, perhaps more associated with Dean, and that's probably related to the technological dimension. But we still haven't seen the proof of the pudding in voting and in the caucuses," said Michael Traugott, a political science professor and senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

"This generation is quite torn. They have significant cynicism and distrust in government, but they are torn by an idealism to make things better," Traugott said.

This tug of cynicism and pull of civic duty can be seen at the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus, which has a history of political activism and protest. Madison's State Street storefronts feature T-shirts that say "I just love corporations!" and posters sarcastically promoting the reason for higher education as a seaside villa with a five-car garage. At the library mall, Bill Anderson, an 18-year-old freshman from Delafield, hands out leaflets to students whose minds are concentrated on finals, which begin this week.

Anderson and other students said the Dean campaign has empowered young people through the Internet, changing campaigns from exclusively top-down, candidate-driven strategies to more inclusive efforts that accept the digital input of volunteers using the Internet. "He is motivating you to get involved," Anderson said of the former Vermont governor.

Jeff Loeser, president of Students for Dean at Ohio State University in Columbus, said the Internet has created "a human outreach that didn't exist before."

At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Mike Reinking, a 27-year-old senior from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, majoring in history, said Sept. 11 "got people thinking a lot more about politics," especially during the debate over trade-offs between civil liberties and national security in the wake of the attacks.

Events since Sept. 11 have removed the abstract nature of foreign policy for some students, including Angela Osthus, a senior at Wisconsin. Osthus, of Eden Prairie, Minn., has a brother in the Air Force who will soon go to Iraq and a cousin in the Marines who recently returned from Iraq.

"Before, I didn't think anything of it," Osthus said. "It's much closer to home now, and I don't understand why we're over there."

Some incentive gone

The strongest youth voter turnout came during the Vietnam War, when the military draft was operating. While draft registration remains, the draft itself has been suspended, eliminating some incentive for young people to vote. Before the Iraq war, much of the campus political activism focused on globalization issues.

"We don't have a polarizing issue like the draft," said Loeser, a senior at Ohio State from Sylvania, Ohio, who leads one of about 900 Dean organizations across the country.

Loeser said students are upset about the war and the economy, with its resulting spikes in tuition costs.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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