Reaching Young Voters

Under-30s are not as engaged as they were in 2008, and unless we get them involved soon, they might tune out future elections
students registering to vote at Tufts in September 2012
Charlie Hegstad, A14, helps fellow students register to vote at Dewick Dining Hall on Sept. 24. Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 23, 2012

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In the 2008 presidential election, young people made a big difference. Barack Obama’s campaign made it a priority to reach out to people between the ages of 18 and 29, while his opponent did little to woo those young voters. Obama garnered 66 percent of the youth vote, while John McCain got 32 percent, the lowest in U.S. presidential election history.

This time around the youth vote is still important, though the story line has changed, says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College. Young people represent enough votes to tilt the outcome in a close race, he says, but while 2008 was “a remarkable story,” 2012 is looking more like other election years.

Tufts Now spoke with Levine about the election and why it’s vital to engage young people in civic life at an early age.

Tufts Now: How are the major parties doing courting the youth vote in this election?

"Those with higher levels of education are more likely to vote. People who have some college education vote at about twice the rate of people who haven’t gone to college at all," says Peter Levine. Photo: Joanie TobinPeter Levine: In 2008, the Obama campaign, from the beginning of the primaries until Election Day, made youth outreach a high priority. They did it well, giving young people responsible roles in the campaign, having a youth coordinator, having Obama appear on college campuses and putting out press releases about youth. McCain received the lowest percentage of the youth vote in history, so this time I think the Republicans are stepping it up a bit. You can see more appearances on campuses by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and the College Republican National Committee and allied groups are spending more money to mobilize students on campuses. But it’s hard to assess which party is doing better, as they don’t have to disclose what they’re spending on youth efforts. In ’08 you could easily see that the Democrats were doing more.

How enthused are young voters about this election?

The 2008 election was exceptional. The tilt in favor of the Democrats was unprecedented. One of the things that was unique in ’08 was that the broad left, from moderate liberals to radicals, all seemed to line up behind Obama, which is unusual. Normally the left is fractious and independent.

Since then we’ve had the Occupy Movement, which, in our national poll conducted in July, drew the support of 15 percent of young people. It’s more typical for young people on the left to be dissatisfied with the Democratic president and deciding whether to vote or not, while the moderates are trying to decide who to vote for. That’s what you’d expect.

Why is it so split this year?

Sometimes people observe the fractiousness and ask, What has Barack Obama done wrong? I think fractiousness is pretty much par for the course; it’s just they’re comparing it to what happened four years ago.

So which party will get more young voters?

The odds are overwhelming that the Democrats will get a majority of young voters this year. Our July poll and national polls taken since by other organizations all show Obama well ahead. But if Romney were to cut into that margin, it could give him the White House. It’s a close race, and that represents a lot of people. Assuming a 50 percent turnout for young people, that would be 23 million votes.

Are today’s 18-year-olds different from the 18-year-olds of four years ago?

Others have found that younger people are a little more conservative now, but we haven’t found that in our survey. I’m not saying it’s wrong. We know they’ve had a different experience, because the group in college in ’08 came of age under the Bush administration, and George Bush was extraordinarily unpopular among young people, and it was before the Great Recession. So they were well served by the economy but disliked the president, and that was their formative experience. The next group started out liking the president a lot more, but economically, they’ve had a bad four years.

What are the most important issues for young people?

The economy dominates. College affordability is not as high a priority. Remember that only about one in four young people are really headed toward a four-year college degree, and more than 30 percent have dropped out of high school. Another large group is already past college age. The central issue for everyone, whether college educated or not, is the job market.

How does Tufts measure up in terms of voter turnout?

Tufts has a high turnout; in 2008 it was above 90 percent. We don’t know precisely how Tufts compares with other schools, but we’re about to launch a project that will measure turnout at college campuses, so we will know better. But we do know that Tufts students tend to be civically engaged. Undergraduate admissions at Tufts selects a little bit for that, and the university also supports civic engagement.

Why does the youth vote matter?

There are a lot of young people, about 46 million between the ages of 18 and 29, so these folks will affect the election. But there’s another reason to care: the future of our democracy. Habits of participation get set early, so if we don’t encourage young people to vote now, the lack of interest in voting will be cemented in, and there will be low turnouts for decades to come.

In addition, if more young people don’t vote, the vote will be unequal. Voter turnout is strongly related to social class, and a lot of our work at CIRCLE is about trying to understand how to engage poor and working-class people, who are the non-voters. Those with higher levels of education are more likely to vote. People who have some college education vote at about twice the rate of people who haven’t gone to college at all.

How many young people go to college?

About half of young people go to college. Of the half who don’t, most have dropped out of high school. In large cities, that group is a substantial majority. In Detroit, for example, 75 percent of residents have dropped out of high school.

How do you reach out to non-college-educated young people?

It’s a tough question and very basic for us. That’s what we study. There used to be a set of institutions, such as unions and churches, that engaged a lot of non-college youth, but they’re all on the ropes. Young people aren’t going to church as much, and they are not in unions. Blue-collar jobs have been crushed, so you’re actually more likely to be in a union if you’ve pursued higher education—teachers and public service employees are what’s left in the unions.

But there are some good programs making efforts. We did a very intensive study last year of YouthBuild USA, which has its headquarters in Davis Square, Somerville. They reach young people who are high school dropouts and get them on a track to be involved in civic life. The young people spend about eight months getting their GED, learning about civic engagement and helping to build homes.

Can public schools help?

We do a lot of work around civic education in schools. We just released a report that says state civic education requirements are very weak on the whole. Most states have a course and a test that typically comes in the senior year of high school, which is too little too late. Massachusetts has only one course, and no statewide test, for instance. A lot of people have dropped out already, and the ones who are still there have senioritis, and are less engaged. Civics should be taught more consistently throughout the K-12 years. Just one course is the norm, and it’s not enough.

At what age can you introduce civics?

Voting can definitely be talked about in kindergarten, and kids sometimes do mock elections, but I wouldn’t put the emphasis on voting until closer to the voting age. We’ve been helping to write a framework for state standards for civic education nationwide organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers, an association of school superintendents. In the early grades, students learn about such civic roles as the president, the mayor, the principal and the teacher. They also learn how to make decisions fairly in a group, so you might ask a class: Are we going out for recess today? And the class talks about how to satisfy the majority as well as the minority.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu