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Government, Politics & Issues

This year, politics is a young person's game

Photo provided by Matt Adler Adler (in blue shirt) makes his pitch for becoming a delegate during a Democratic congressional caucus in March. (300 pixls)
Provided by Matt Adler | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2008: The millennial generation -- under 30 and Internet-savvy -- is known for its interest in service to others, volunteerism and social issues. After months of political networking before and after the Iowa caucus, Matt Adler began to sense that "millennials" were ready for something new -- a leap into the political arena.

Adler, 22, a Washington University senior who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, is evidence of young people's deeper involvement. After hard work in local caucuses, he surprised himself by becoming one of the two youngest Democrats to win slots as delegates to August’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. The other young delegate is Sam Hodge, 21, a senior at Truman State University.

As if to confirm Adler’s prediction, a record 190,000 people between the ages of 18 and 30 voted in Missouri’s presidential primary – more than 114,000 for Democratic candidates and more than 75,000 for Republicans. While voter participation was up among all age groups in Missouri’s primary, the sharpest increase was among the young, defined as people between the ages of 18 and 30. Their voter turnout rate was 21 percent, compared to 7 percent in 2000.

“This is a much bigger phenomenon than any one candidate, bigger than Obama,” says Adler, a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama. “He has tapped into the fact that young people want to get involved, are acting on their beliefs and are paying more attention to what is happening in the country. We’ve established ourselves as a constituency, put ourselves on the map. It shows that with the right inducement, we will come out and vote.”

Among the inducements, Adler says, are Obama’s consistent opposition to the war in Iraq and his rare ability to connect with young voters.

Traditionally, campaigns have looked to young people to staff phone banks, stuff envelopes and take orders, Adler says. “The first thing I noticed was the fact that lots of young people, people as young as 22, had tremendous responsibilities in the Obama campaign,” Adler says. “The second thing was that it wasn’t a case of a campaign talking about young people but young people talking to young people.

“The campaign didn’t tell us what they wanted us to do. They asked, ‘What do you want to do? How can we approach what you want to do?’ They were saying in effect, ‘We care about you, we respect you, and we want to support what you want to do.’ ”

Hodge, the Truman State student and a Clinton supporter from Blue Springs, Mo., says young voters may be “slightly more enthusiastic about Obama,” but that Sen. Hillary Clinton is “a powerful leader, an inspiration for young people.”

He adds, “Young people are excited about this election because for seven years we’ve had a politics of cynicism, a president who hasn’t represented people well and a war (in Iraq) that has been fought under false pretenses.”

Passionate young voters like Adler and Hodge are common across America, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). CIRCLE is a non-partisan research center based at the University of Maryland.

A 1993 survey, sponsored by The Charles F. Kettering Foundation, found that Generation X students were alienated, felt politics were irrelevant and saw little benefit in taking part in the political process. But CIRCLE's research last fall revealed that college students were hungry for political dialogue that was less divisive and cynical.

Apparently, some of the candidates got the message, luring 3 million people under age 30 to vote in the Super Tuesday contests. Of that number, about 2 million voted Democratic and roughly 900,000 favored Republicans.

In Missouri, where the primary sent 190,000 young people to voting booths, Obama’s name was on most of those ballots. He won 65 percent of the youth vote, followed by 30 percent for Clinton and 3 percent for Edwards.

Among GOP candidates in the Missouri primary, 43 percent of youth voters favored former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 27 percent supported Sen. John McCain, and 18 percent went for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, says part of the change in youth attitudes stemmed from the fact that high schools and colleges have helped to reshape student attitudes about service and civic engagement, a process that has morphed into involvement in politics.

Millennial students also place less value on information from traditional news and opinion sources because they regard these sources as untrustworthy and partisan, CIRCLE’s research found.

That was certainly Adler’s attitude late last year. He remembers half listening to a clueless pundit predict on television that the droves of young people flocking to Obama's rallies last winter wouldn’t bother to show up to vote at caucuses.

“For me,” Adler said, “that comment was like a trigger. It energized me and made me want to prove this assumption wrong.”