Young Voters Did Not Fit Into Preconceived Niches

November 4, 2004 | By Jeff Houck

So much for predicting the voting patterns of young America.

Shifting ideologies among voters between the ages of 18 and 24 have thrown political models off their axis.

“It’s getting to the point where political strategists have to wonder if any feasible strategy can be used for getting at the youth vote,” said Frederick Hess, director for education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.

Lateon Election Day, exit polls were detecting an overwhelming youth turnout in favor of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. The news buoyed the Democrats, who saw young voters as crucial to unseating President Bush.

Tradition holds that the political ideology of younger voters tends to skew left, especially when issues such as job losses and the possibility of a military draft are in play.

Kerry actively courted the youth vote. He was interviewed on MTV five times—five more than Bush. His campaign set up Web logs. Groups of college Democrats mobilized on campuses nationwide to register voters.

Conventional wisdom would indicate that the more young people who vote, the more Democratic votes would be cast.

That is what happened to an extent, but few pundits anticipated the bedrock of conservative voters between 18 and 24 years old.

Exit polls indicated that young people who did vote strongly supported Kerry over Bush, but not to the extent that Democrats had hoped.

Four years ago Bush and Al Gore split the vote among those 18 to 29 years old: Bush had 46.2 percent to Gore’s 47.6 percent. This year, Kerry won 54 percent of their vote, and Bush took 44 percent, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

Although it’s true that the number of young voters who turned out to voteincreased, it’s also true that more voters of all ages turned out. Putin context, fewer than one in 10 voters Tuesday were between 18 and 24—roughly the same proportion of the electorate as in 2000.

“We hear this over and over, that if you can find a way to break through to younger voters that there is a rich mother lode of support,” Hess said. “I’ve got to wonder after all this time if it isn’t some sort of phantasm.”

Conservative “Millennials”

The trend is part of a broad swing toward the right by the generation tagged as “The Millennials” by author and media consultant William Strauss.

Millennials drink less, smoke less, take fewer drugs, commit fewer violent crimesthan previous generations and look at their parents more as friends than foes, Strauss wrote, with co-author Neil Howe, in their book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

Strauss spent election night at Langley High School in McLean, Va., watching 250 students conduct their own election coverage. Supporters of both parties took turns placing blue and red states on a map and cheeringtheir candidate.

The electoral process, hesaid, energized the students more than the candidates and their messages. Unlike Democratic primary challenger Howard Dean, Kerry did not engage younger voters in a meaningful way, he said. Focusing much of his campaign on his Vietnam service only widened the psychological divide between himself and those born after 1980.

Dean was the only candidate who appealed directly to students, using Weblogs and e-mail while others took their campaigns to TV and radio, Strauss said.

The Kerry campaign “tried the old slogans, they tried ‘Vote or Die’ on MTV, they used TV, which young people don’t watch any more” he said. “You are not going to attract young people with Springsteen and Bon Jovi, who, last I checked, are not young.”

Engaged By Issues, Values

Kerry’s traditional Democratic stance on environmental protection issues attracted Ingrid Holguin, 20, of Seminole Heights.

She voted early last week, enthusiastic about the election after taking asociology class that studied the campaigns this semester at Hillsborough Community College.

She was shocked that half the students in her class supported Bush, and many of the Kerry supporters expected Bush to win.

“I was surprised people would think of putting Bush back in,” Holguin said. “The ones who supported him said they did because of his moral stance and religious beliefs.”

Those values attracted Allison Hull, 18. A journalism student at the University of Missouri and graduate of Durant High School in Plant City, she voted by absentee ballot in favor of Bush. She describes herself as a moderate conservative, influenced heavily by her father, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael P. Hull.

Hull has seen many college Republicans wearing T-shirts on campus, but she says their views aren’t shared by many.

On Tuesday night, she was in the newsroom at The Missourian, a newspaper produced by the journalism school, to see how how reporters write stories while reacting to rapidly changing election information.

“There was only about 10 or 11 of us, and I was the only conservative in our group,” she said. “One of my friends kept wanting to get into discussions and I refused. I would be completely jumped on.”

Hull said the appeal by the Bush campaign—without the use of celebrities and gimmicks—was effective in reaching her.

Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said that candidates must convey two ideas to attract young voters. They must project an image of stability and deliver an authentic message about their party’s political beliefs.

Millennials, who tend to be more civic minded, want to be taken seriously as voters and are turned off by pandering.

“It isn’t about ‘Rock the Vote,’” Strauss said. “For them, it’s about ‘Duty to Vote.’ There’s a candidate somewhere in the future who will understand and harness that.”