Will the Youth Vote Rock in November?

Many issues in 2004 particularly affect young voters, the most apathetic part of the electorate, and all campaigns are courting them

By Melissa Lynn

For years, pollsters and pundits have been trying to figure out why 18- to 24-year-olds turn out in significantly fewer numbers on Election Day than American voters overall. Opinions vary, but Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says it has everything to do with being unsettled. "Young people are mobile and haven't put any roots down anywhere. The change makes it difficult to get out and vote," he explains. "They have two hurdles: One is registering, and the other is to vote."

According to the Civic Youth Organization (CYO) at the University of Maryland, which tracks turnout, only 37% of younger, eligible voters cast a ballot in 2000, compared to about 50% of the overall electorate. That gap in turnout has been consistent in every Presidential election since World War II.

GALVANIZING ISSUES.

  With the 2004 race so tight, however, both Presidential campaigns are mounting efforts to get young voters to the polls. "It potentially could be as close as 2000," explains Scott Stanzel, spokesperson for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Many analysts believe issues like the war in Iraq (being fought by young men and women), an uncertain economy with shaky job prospects, and social issues like gay marriage and abortion rights could galvanize young voters and boost turnout this year. Sabato thinks overall turnout will rise to 55% this November, just given the high level of interest in the matchup between incumbent George Bush and Democrat John Kerry, and that the youth vote will rise as well.

The Iraq invasion and occupation, while it hasn't been the polarizing issue that the Vietnam War was during the 1960s and early 1970s, has particular relevance to young voters, says CYO Director William Galston. "The people dying on a daily basis in war are young people -- people they can identify themselves with. They may feel the need to vote and possibly make a difference in the election."

TWO-EDGED ECONOMY.

  Pollster John Zogby sees women ages 18-24 as one of the key voting blocs for achieving victory in November. He thinks a backlash could occur among this group to the Bush Administration's ban on partial-birth abortion and limits on stem-cell research. Plus, he thinks younger, politically active females are worried about possible openings on the Supreme Court that Bush could try to fill with nominees holding restrictive views on abortion rights. "I think you will have a high turnout rate in young women," says Zogby. "Due to the issue of choice, they're being reached."

Small wonder both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have been targeting youthful voters with special events. Last March -- before the Democratic primaries were even over -- the Bush campaign had student volunteers handing out campaign leaflets at the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in San Antonio. Although the campaign declined to discuss its strategy, spokesperson Stanzel says it has organized 73,000 youth volunteers with 600 campus chairpeople in 43 states to help turn out the vote on Nov. 2. The President is trying to appeal to young voters with a strong economic message of job creation and lower taxes.

Rick Davis, former McCain Presidential campaign manager and now chairman of Straight Talk America, an advocacy group, thinks a message of a stronger economy, coupled with stronger homeland security will play with newly minted voters. "Young people are worried about what will be out there for them when it's their turn. Eighty percent of what they care about is jobs. But young people are also very patriotic." Stanzel says, "Youth voters understand the stakes. Bush is the leader to strengthen the economy and fight the war on terror."

Dane Strother, of Strother & Strother Democratic Strategists, believes the economy is a two-edged sword for Bush with younger voters, however. "These kids need jobs. They don't need to compete for jobs against people with 10 years more experience when the economy goes bad." By Melissa Lynn

WILD CARD.

  The Kerry campaign will announce a National Steering Committee comprising young people, college students, workers, and veterans around the time of the Democratic National Convention in Boston July 26-30, according to Allison Dobson, spokesperson for the Kerry campaign. Dobson cited three major concerns that Kerry has heard from American youth: war, jobs, and access to a college education. She also cites abortion rights and the untapped market of young single women.

"There are issues here that young Americans are worried about and John Kerry can reach." says Democratic pollster Strother. A little dose of Hollywood can't hurt either. Young stars Natalie Portman, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio have all taken time to rally support for the Massachusetts senator.

The wild card in this race: Independent candidate Ralph Nader. The charismatic consumer activist has long been known for his strong political allure for young people, some of whom served briefly as "Nader's Raiders" in 2000. Kevin Zeese, the independent's spokesperson, says Nader is popular with youth because "he's standing up to power, and they like his underdog courage." This month the four-time Presidential candidate will be featured in hip-hop magazine The Source, which Zeese thinks will help Nader reach younger audiences.

HOWARD STERN FACTOR.

  Zogby agrees that Nader has a connection with youth as he's the most antiwar among the Presidential candidates, and that this could cause a problem for Kerry, whose views on seeing the Iraqi occupation to a successful finish aren't that different from the President's. But Zogby is quick to add: "Young voters may decide they want to win."

Strother agrees. He believes that the Democratic message has gotten through to young citizens this time: A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. Even Davis thinks Nader may have lost his luster with young people, especially after the extraordinarily close 2000 election. "I don't think the majority of [Democratic-leaning] youth will vote for Nader because youth think they can impact the outcome."

Zogby also cites another looming factor. "I wouldn't underestimate Howard Stern and his connection to young, white males." The shock jock has been particularly outspoken of late against Bush and his Federal Communications Commission for cracking down on radio and TV programming deemed objectionable or obscene. Stern has been loudly supporting Kerry on his radio program. Even Republican Davis expresses a little worry: "Howard Stern is clearly influential with a certain demographic. He's on a jihad against the Bush Administration because he can't use his four-letter words as much as he wants to."

ALTERNATIVE SOURCES.

  Strother points out that increasingly, young American get vital information from sources considered unconventional by their parents: Us magazine, Saturday Night Live, late-night talk shows with Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart, the Comedy Channel, and Howard Stern. "They don't read the [New York] Times and the [Washington] Post. It's about the mediums in which they're reached."

It seems like a lot of analysis for a group of Americans that seldom votes. Says Davis: "In a close election, this all matters." Which could make young turnout especially interesting to watch this year.

Lynn, a journalism major at Marquette University in Milwaukee, is a summer intern in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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