"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
Youthful Voters Engage
And They're Ready to Swing...
Posted 12:08 a.m., April 17, 2004
Recognizing that political party affiliation is not like brand loyalty to, say, cigarettes or beer--meaning one may not forever remain true to the party of one's youth--it is nonetheless interesting to witness the results of two recent national surveys emerging in recent days from Harvard University.
The first survey, by Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project shows that nationally young adults--those in the 18- to 30-year-old age bracket--are far more interested in the outcome of the 2004 presidential election than they were in 2000. In fact, this year marks the reversal of a 30-year trend of growing apathy in presidential elections among young adults, dating back to 1972, when 18-year-olds were first given the right to vote.
In the 1972 election, held at the beginning of the Watergate crisis and during a period in which Vietnam was still a powerfully divisive issue, 50 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds voted. In 2000, the participation rate of that age group was barely above 30 percent.
However, nationwide this year, 57 percent of young adult respondents felt that the outcome off the presidential election will impact the future of the country "quite a bit" or "a great deal."
The Vanishing Voter survey is conducted by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The other survey, a poll of 1,205 college undergraduates conducted in March by the Harvard University Institute of Politics, shows that 41 percent of undergrads identify themselves as independents. And, in a bad sign for President Bush, the Democrats have a wide lead among those associated with one of the two major parties. Thirty-two percent of undergraduates identify themselves as Democrats, and only 24 percent as Republicans, the largest gap either party has enjoyed in the annual survey since 2000.
In the current presidential race, John Kerry has built a double-digit lead over President Bush, despite the entrance into the race of liberal independent Ralph Nader. Kerry leads among undergrads with 48 percent support, compared to Bush's 38 percent and Nader's 5 percent. Ten percent say they are undecided.
Students who helped draft the survey say Kerry's support is soft, however, meaning the youth bloc is indeed a swing segment of the electorate. "Recently, this is more of a no vote for George Bush than a yes vote for John Kerry," Harvard's Caitlin Monahan told CNN today. "So people really don't know who he is and they're waiting for him to define himself."
Indeed, 37 percent of those surveyed said they don't know enough about Kerry to form an opinion. Fifty-seven percent rank Kerry as "somewhat favorable."
Still the reversal indicates momentum for Kerry. Last fall, Bush held a solid lead among undergraduates, 38-33 percent over Kerry or other Democratic candidates.
The Institute of Politics survey shows that the reason for students drifting away from strong party affiliation stems from a nascent view that "the best way to decide an election is not to come in with a preconceived notion of which party one wants to vote for." Instead, according to the survey's executive summary, "one should choose based on the issues and the candidates in that particular election."
The survey apparently didn't gauge the interest of undergraduates in third-party efforts, but shows a distinctive centrist tilt among the age group. Among those surveyed, traditional liberals made up 32 percent of respondents. Traditional conservatives comprised 16 percent. "Religious centrists" made up 23 percent, while "secular centrists" made up 29 percent. That's 52 percent of students overall who consider themselves centrists of one stripe or another.
More than 60 percent of the respondents in the poll said they "definitely" will vote in November.
More information on the survey is online at the Institute of Politics Web site.
Kevin Featherly is a political journalist, tech news reporter, freelance writer and columnist based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. The former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive's Newsbytes.com, he has authored or contributed to five previous books, Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site (1998), The Wired Journalist (1999), Elements of Language (2001), Pop Music and the Press (2002) and Encyclopedia of New Media (2003). His byline has appeared in Editor & Publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the San Diego Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Online Journalism Review, Minnesota Law and Politics and City Pages, among other publications. In 2000, he was a media coordinator for Web, White & Blue, the first online presidential debates. Currently he works as news editor for the McGraw-Hill tech publication, Healthcare Informatics.
Copyright 2004, by Kevin Featherly