WASHINGTON — Ah, the "youth vote." Politicians pay it lip service, but no candidate wants to bank too much on how many college kids will remember to get absentee ballots. Not to mention non-college kids.
In 1971, Vietnam War politics lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Youth turnout was 52 percent in 1972's Nixon vs. McGovern presidential election, but slid over the next three decades, down to only 36 percent in Bush vs. Gore 2000. The only exception: 1992, when young Bill Clinton prompted 48.6 percent turnout among voters 18 to 24.
The youth vote did expand again in 2004, when 47 percent of voters aged 18 to 24 turned out. What set off that spike? Anger at the 2000 Bush-Gore post-election overtime? Outrage at the 2003 Iraq war? Web-driven enthusiasm for a certain Vermont governor beloved by "Deaniacs"?
The latest U.S. Census estimate counts 28.2 million 18- to 24-year-olds residing in the United States. Will they vote in 2008?
Some candidates hope so. Democrat Barack Obama, 46, borrowed from "Rock the Vote," the nonpartisan youth mobilization group created by musicians in 1990, with his Web site, http://baracktheyouthvote.org/. His strategy depends in part upon turning out young voters.
Republican Ron Paul has a young, Internet-savvy base. His following on the Facebook Web site is adoring and he recently set a record for raising $4.2 million in funds in one 24-hour period, much of it small donations from young people via the Internet.
But for the most part, young voters tilt Democratic. The 18-to-24 age group comprises the strongest support base for the Democratic ticket of all age groups in recent elections - 56 percent for John Kerry in 2004, according to an analysis by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at the University of Maryland.
A new documentary film about youth voting came out on DVD this week on the Web site, www.18in08.com. It's by David Burstein, a freshman at Haverford College, who spent three years and $100,000 of his parents' money making it. His father is a venture capitalist and best-selling author.
For the film, he talked to politicians, activists and 18- to 24-year-olds. The message: Young people should vote.
In the documentary, Republican Jeb Bush, the ex-governor of Florida and the president's brother, said that if youth turnout improved, politicians would do more for them. Democratic strategist James Carville thought significant change unlikely: "Age has always been an accurate predictor of turnout." Actor Richard Dreyfuss said that young people don't vote because they "are addicted to instant gratification."
Burstein, 19, is excited about his first presidential election. We asked him what he's learned.
Q: Talk about the Internet's influence on youth voters.
A: New media and technology and stuff like YouTube and Facebook and MySpace (are) really changing the landscape. For the first time candidates are right where young people are. They don't have to make a conscious decision to engage because it just sort of pops up on their computer. But where it goes from there after they watch it remains to be seen.
Q: What incentives do Republicans have to encourage youth turnout?
A: It's an investment in the future. Think about Hillary Clinton who as a young person was very much in favor of (Republican) Barry Goldwater. People can change who they vote for over time.
Q: How big a motivator did young voters tell you that Iraq would be in whether they turn out?
A: I got a lot more pulse on that in 2004 and 2005. … There is a little bit of Iraq fatigue. Young people are, I think, a little frustrated nothing's getting done on it.
Q: What's the biggest revelation you had from this?
A: I started out with the conception (young) people are apathetic. But there's an enormous groundswell of activism, things like gay rights and Darfur. It's just that politics doesn't really seem to allow people the best way to make a difference. The exposure we've had is not the best recruiting: Monica Lewinsky, Hurricane Katrina, weapons of mass destruction. It's hard to look at these things and say "Wow, this is something I really want to be involved in."
Q: Whom do you plan to vote for?
A: I am an Obama fan. I just feel like he's someone who's new and fresh and has a lot to do with the reasons I made this film . . . solving some of the cynicism of politics and getting people engaged. For me, that's almost more important than a lot of specific policy issues.