The Left frequently claims to speak for younger Americans. But when it comes to hearing from them, the Left prefers silence. After all, they think we are irrelevant. At a recent American University forum, student Justin Meyer asked political analyst Stuart Rothenberg if 18-24 year olds could be a crucial swing vote in the 2002 elections. Rothenberg’s sarcastic answer: “I’m sorry, but you’re irrelevant. You don’t matter.” The other assembled political experts (all left of center) chuckled and nodded in agreement. A second student approached the microphone and explained his strong involvement in politics since he was in junior high school. Rothenberg called him “an aberration.” Listen closely, college students and recent graduates of America: the political cognoscenti have written you off.
According to political consultants and analysts on both sides, young people don’t vote, and are, therefore, irrelevant. That this characterization is wrong-headed is proved by exit poll and US census data from 2000. These data reveal that young people vote in similar proportions as the currently “hot” demographic groups — Hispanics and African-Americans. Few pundits point out the mediocre turnout of these groups. But if these demographic groups deserve our attention and campaign effort — and they do — then so do young people.
The political pundits’ general explanation of why few young people bother to vote is that they are apathetic about world events. This argument is, however, false. A glance at college campuses today reveals that students are on the front line of the ideological war for the future of this country. There are student groups for virtually every political issue — labor rights, the environment, pro-life, pro-choice, women’s rights, free trade, and so on. If college students are engaged on the issues, why don’t they vote? Clearly, it is not because they are apathetic.
There are many examples at the local, state, and even national level that prove the ability of young people to vote in sufficient numbers to influence the outcome of crucial elections. Most of the examples are from the Right because conservatives better recognize students’ relevance to politics. The following are a few recent examples.
In the 2000 elections, College Republicans at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota generated 177 votes for Republican challenger Mark Kennedy. That may seem like an irrelevant number, but Kennedy won by only 155 votes, 22 less than his young supporters delivered. Congressman Kennedy unseated four-term Democrat David Minge.
Also in the 2000 elections, Republican challenger Rob Simmons unseated four-term Connecticut Congressman Sam Gejdenson with the help of the College Republican National Committee. The CRNC provided more than 50 young campaign volunteers per week to the campaign. Simmons won by less than 3,000 votes.
Reaching farther back in the archives, Ronald Reagan won the state of Massachusetts by only 3,000 votes in 1980. The College Republican youth effort in that state generated more than 5,000 absentee ballots.
To be sure, the Green Party has its young supporters, but it is the exception that proves the rule. Indeed, the shift of student support from College Democrats to Ralph Nader’s Campus Greens further reveals the Democrats’ neglect of young would-be voters. In 2000, Nader garnered two and a half times more votes from 18-29 year olds than from any other age category. The Republican Party and many conservative activist organizations, however, demonstrate growing support for campus and young professional groups. No surprises here, given recent examples of electoral success by campus Republicans.
As this small set of examples demonstrates, young Americans do vote and can make a significant difference in electoral outcomes. Instead of dismissing college students, political pundits such as Stuart Rothenberg ought to figure out how to engage them in the process. The claim that politicians need not pay attention to young people’s concerns because they do not vote is anti-democratic and nonsensical. As any marketer knows, most people commit to product brands before they reach the age of 30. Political party affiliations are ideological “brands” and the most effective time to “sell” people on them is when they are young.
Good grassroots campaigners know that people vote when a candidate and his message energize them. If politicians reach out to young people and give them a reason to go to the polls, they will. A serious and concerted effort to engage students and recent graduates in the political process would pay huge dividends in present and future election cycles. Lest the pundits forget, we twenty-somethings will be voting long after they stop telling us what to think.
Jeff Berkowitz is a political and communications strategist specializing in youth outreach. He serves as Senior Advisor and Web site Editor for Generation GOP. He was Northeast Field Director for the College Republican National Committee prior to the 2000 Presidential Primaries and has worked on numerous political campaigns throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.