The Voiceless Youth Vote

This November, millions of Americans will flock to the polling booths to cast their votes in the Presidential Election, many for the first time. After millions of dollars spent, hours of debates, pages and pages of speeches, the candidates will have campaigned fiercely for their votes. But one demographic waits in the balance. It’s the young voter, any American that is eligible to vote between the ages of 18 and 29…

That’s us.

Once a powerhouse demographic in the 2008 election, the youth vote threatens to fall back into anonymity. In the 2008 election, 23 million young voters cast their ballots, an increase of 3.4 million voters from the 2004 election. With 46 million young Americans eligible to vote in 2012, it’s estimated that by 2015 our young generation will make up one-third of electors. That’s a lot of potential political power. That’s us, or at least that’s what we could be.

Unfortunately, the numbers show it’s not. As of early October, a Gallup poll shows that this demographic is the least likely to vote in the 2012 elections. The poll included 48 demographics including education level, age, race and lifestyle–with the youth demographic 17 percentage points behind the national average of those likely to vote.

All of these numbers mean the young vote is an important demographic, but it also means its importance is waning. Where has the enthusiasm from previous elections gone? Is it a question of apathy, or being ignored?

“For me, it seems that the political atmosphere surrounding this election feels different than it did in 2008. I think at least, for younger voters, its not as energized and mobilized and people aren’t as motivated,” says Katie Long, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. “Neither campaign is really targeting young voters as adequately as they did in 2008. We sort of feel disenchanted with the whole political process.”

In 2008, the campaigns heavily targeted the youth vote. For the first time social media was greatly involved. Candidates Barack Obama and John McCain used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking platforms to appeal to young voters, who are a technological, connected generation. They also targeted an optimistic, artistic and creative generation. Most notably, Obama’s campaign was centered among the idea of “Hope” for the United States. The “Hope” campaign gained even more popularity when Shepard Fairey, a graphic-designer and street artist known for this popular OBEY design, distributed the now-famous “Obama Hope” poster. The stylized and contemporary poster was a classic example of modern art and campaigning. It was simplified, optimistic, and, well, hopeful.

Four years later, the young generation learned that the political game is

indeed not a simple one. The optimism has faded. The hope that was promised is now in question. It has been replaced by attacks from both sides—and too often, anger. The money trail often leads down this jaded path as well. Funded by groups known as “super PACs” (Super Political Action Committees, which are organizations that campaign for issues), the candidates have been able to spend a majority of their money on attack ads. As of August, Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign spent $198 million, over 89 percent, on attack advertisements. President Obama’s campaign spent over $160 million, over 78 percent.

Attack ads may have worked in the past and may be effective on older generations, but they don’t appeal to the young voter.

“If someone tends to consistently slam their opposer and pump him or herself up, then I know that person will play dirty and do anything that they can do to win and aren’t to be trusted,” says Lauren Holman, a sophomore in the College of Communication.

Holman isn’t the only one who feels this way. In a recent controlled study, researchers at the University of Florida tested the influence of attack ads on nearly 300 undergrads, and found negative ads aren’t connecting to the youth vote anymore.

Why the change? The study suggests that the demographic for which negative ads work–those who think the government is working–has been shrinking. And the number of people who are already frustrated with the government is growing.

“The youth feels frustrated and is feeling like they don’t really have any political say,” Long says.

This may explain the downward trend on those of us that are “definitely likely to vote.” A Gallup Poll revealed that in October 2008, 78 percent were likely to vote. That number is currently at 66 percent—down 12 percentage points in four years.

“I’ve heard a lot of people around campus being like ‘I don’t care about this election’ and I’ve heard about people not wanting to go out and vote,” Long says. “It’s different than in 2008 where people where really excited about it.”

So where did the enthusiasm go? Did the youth lose interest because of negative ads? Or is there more to it?

Maybe the youth vote is frustrated with the issues.  When asked, Marquette students said that their main concerns were the rising cost of attending college and the current job market. All of which aren’t getting any better. (Check out our sidebar.)

And how do the candidates respond to the youth’s issues? Take higher education. In Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention he spent under a minute directly addressing the youth vote on the issue. Obama only spent a little over a minute at the Democratic National Convention doing the same.

“The truth is younger voters vote at lower rates than those over 30 when they don’t have information (about the issues) or aren’t targeted,” says Dr. Amber Wichowsky, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.

This feeling isn’t lost on the young voter. “I think that not going after the youth vote is very detrimental,” Long says. “I think politicians are shooting themselves in the foot by not going after it.”

Why aren’t candidates targeting young voters more aggressively? While voting numbers are projected to dwindle, teenagers and twenty-somethings are working in political and social campaigns at local and national levels all around the country. Is the apathetic, uncaring, self-centered stereotype something of which some young voters are vying to rid themselves?

Lara Johann-Reichart, a senior majoring in English and political science in the College of Arts & Sciences, belongs to the College Democrats chapter at Marquette. She volunteered around various political causes in Milwaukee and interned at the Democratic Party since November up until the June 5 Scott Walker Recall election. Johann-Reichart says, “I know people my age from Marquette that have interned or worked for parties. There’s a big youth presence. Many of my supervisors were in their 20s.”

There’s also been a surge of interest due to heated political activity on both national and state levels. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker divided a state and at the same time awoke political feelings among many residents. “I have a lot of friends that don’t participate as much as I do. There’s a sense of apathy… (But) with the recall election there’s been a big surge in interest among my non-political friends,” explains Johann-Reichart.

President Obama may have a head-start due to his large campaigning in 2008 and the active presence of the Democratic party in the social networking sites; the official Obama account has over 6,000 tweets and 20 million followers and his Facebook page has over 29 million likes, compared to Mitt Romney’s 1,000 tweets and just over 1 million followers and 8 million Facebook likes. Many feel Obama’s campaign is lacking compared to the past election and more focused on keeping his 2008 voters rather than gaining or attracting new ones. Historically, young voters tend to identify as liberal or vote Democratic, but Republicans were encouraged by the fact that there was an increase in conservative party affiliation.

“I feel like young people have a hot and cold relationship with politics. We care when it impacts us, but don’t give a crap if it doesn’t. What we don’t realize is that every issue directly affects us, whether we see it now or not,” says Holman.  “We really should be more vocal about things and take more stands for what we feel is unjust.”