Political activism on campus heats up as elections near
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 08:10
The Hill was abuzz on Nov. 4, 2008, with the news that then-Senator Barack Obama had been elected the 44th president of the United States. The Experimental College’s Election Night Extravaganza drew crowds into Hotung to await the results, and Obama’s victory led to festivities among students.
“On election night there was a gigantic, spontaneous celebration [march] down to Davis Square,” Director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) Peter Levine recounted of stories told the following day. “If you’d been here in ’08, in that fall of ’08, you would’ve said that they were all very excited about Obama.”
Four years later, election season is upon us again, and the youth demographic appears to have a huge stake in the results. A turnout as equally striking as in ’08, though, is not expected.
With nearly 46 million 18- to 29-year-old citizens registered to vote, the youth demographic makes up 21 percent of all voters. According to reporting in July by Gallup, though, turnout intentions in this age group are low — especially compared to the national average of 78 percent — with 58 percent of youth asserting they are “definitely likely” to vote in the election.
“I don’t really like to lecture or persuade Tufts students that they should vote because I actually think the question of whether or not you should vote is a decent one,” Levine said. “What I would say is that groups of people — demographic groups — who vote get a lot better deal in society than groups who don’t.”
Approximately 90 percent of Tufts students voted in the 2008 election, according to Levine, and the youth vote in general in the 2008 Presidential election contributed significantly to Obama’s victory. Despite a relatively normal turnout of 18- to 29-year-olds compared to other years, the atypical aspect of the ’08 election was the dramatic Democratic lean of the youth demographic.
Almost 66 percent of young voters chose Obama over McCain, according to the election exit polls. With a youth voter turnout of about 51 percent — 11 percentage points higher than the 2000 election — the decision to vote Democrat seemed to transcend racial and partisan lines, according to CIRCLE’s fact sheet, “Young Voters in the 2008 Presidential Election.”
Regardless of preference for a candidate, the issues that voters consider most important in this year’s election appear to be consistent across all age groups, according to John Richard Skuse Professor of Political Science Jeff Berry.
“For 18- to 29-year-olds, a lot of the issues overlap with those that everyone else is concerned about,” he said. “So the economy is number one on everybody’s mind regardless of age or any other demographic factor.”
Levine cited a survey conducted by CIRCLE that reiterated the widespread concern for economic issues.
“We did a poll in early July of young people, and we asked them what issues are most important to them,” he said. “If you’re asking about what most people care about, the answer is definitely economic performance and a debate about which party is more likely to get us out of a bad economic era.”
As a result, according to Levine, there is not necessarily a separate youth agenda in the campaign, although there are particular social issues that would be of greater significance to young voters, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights or environmental concerns. Issues such as these matter intensely to specific members of the demographic, but young citizens as a whole are difficult to pigeonhole into one cause.
“A key thing that we always say about the generation is it’s ... not only hard to generalize, but somewhat inappropriate or bad to generalize,” Levine said. “In fact, the most important thing about this generation is just how ... splintered it is. You’re the most demographically diverse generation in American history.”
Consequently, Levine said, both Obama and Romney must be accessible to different young constituencies.
“Whenever anyone’s asked to vote, they’re much more likely to vote, so campaigns either do that with young people or they don’t,” he said. “Very often they don’t because they think that young people are not very likely to vote comparatively, so they don’t bother. But the Obama campaign [has had] a lot of outreach, especially to college youth in ’08.”
The youth turnout for McCain, on the other hand, was the worst for a presidential candidate in American history, Levine added.
“I think the Romney campaign knows that and is definitely stepping it up,” he said.
The result is proactive campaigning through channels that directly reach young voters, particularly social media. Both campaigns are accessible on multiple social networks, despite a clear lead taken by Obama’s efforts.
According to studies by the Pew Research Center, the Obama campaign had a presence on two times as many platforms as the Romney campaign, posting four times as much content, over a two-week period in June.