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Young Voters Predict Big Impact on Fall Election

May 26, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Three students and youth vote experts, including the executive director of Rock the Vote, discuss the role young voters have played in the primary races, and how they could affect the upcoming general election.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, a new enthusiasm for politics among voters under 30. Judy Woodruff has the story.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Ill.: … and why young people from all over this country have left their friends and their families for a job that offers little pay and less sleep.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Barack Obama went back to Iowa, the site of his first win of the campaign season, to send a message of thanks last week.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: It’s what led high school and college students to give up their vacations to stuff envelopes and knock on doors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was thanks directed particularly to young people. They made up 22 percent of the Democratic caucus vote in Iowa, about twice as many as typically take part in caucuses. And of those, 57 percent went for Obama, the largest margin he received from any age group.

The youth vote has been much discussed in the past, but it’s 2008 that has really brought out the 18- to 29-year-old crowd in full force. More than 5.7 million voters under the age of 30 have participated in primaries and caucuses so far. That is a 109 percent increase from the last presidential cycle.

And, compared to 2000, the youth vote quadrupled in Tennessee; nearly tripled in Texas, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma; and doubled in Ohio and Massachusetts.

Hillary Clinton has tried to sway young people, too. Here’s what she said after Super Tuesday.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), N.Y.: I won the youth vote in both Massachusetts and California. We obviously have geared up and really done a lot more in recent months to reach out to young people, to let them know that I’m not just worried about the next election, I’m worried about the next generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the 71-year-old John McCain has tried to praise the virtues of the work ethic of the younger generation.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Ariz.: Young Americans, no less than earlier generations, understand that true happiness is much greater than the pursuit of pleasure and can only be found by serving causes greater than self-interest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of course, candidates have tried to attract tech-savvy young people through the Internet.

But while campaigns reach out to students, students are reaching out to each other, maximizing social networking tools to mobilize their friends and peers.

Here at this MySpace pro-Clinton group, people can go to find out more information about a rally this week to try to influence the Democratic National Committee’s upcoming meeting to seat Florida and Michigan delegates at this summer’s convention.

At this Facebook page, young people feed other young people more detailed advocacy information on Obama.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: The category is my top 10 campaign promises.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, candidates have continued to turn to late-night comedy shows to attract generation next. By clicking on this YouTube link, young McCain supporters hope they’ll attract others to check out their candidate in case they missed his appearance or want to see it again.

And youth voter mobilization groups have combined old-fashioned pavement-pounding with the new ways of the wired world, from bring your own phone to phone banks to “Text the Vote” announcements.

GIDEON YAGO, MTV anchor: We’re giving you, the young voter, the chance to pose questions directly to the men and woman who would be president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the course of the campaign, forums, such as ONE, co-sponsored by MySpace and MTV, and the CNN-YouTube debates, have given young people a way to get questions directly to the candidates.

Youth vote organizers speak

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at young voters and what is motivating them this election cycle, we are joined by three politically active students.

Karin Agness, a law student at the University of Virginia, who founded a national book club called the Network of Enlightened Women. She's supporting Senator McCain.

Jessica Lee is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. She was their student body president and head of their Young Democrats organization. She is supporting Hillary Clinton.

And Jose Torres, a senior at DePaul University, has registered over 5,000 people in Chicago to vote and is an intern at the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute. He supports Barack Obama.

We also have representatives from two organizations that focus on getting young people to vote.

Heather Smith is the executive director of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization designed to use entertainment and youth culture to promote civic participation.

And Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director for Public Interest Research Group's New Voter Project, also a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages young people to vote and tracks their participation.

Well, thank you, all five of you, for being with us.

And I want to start by saying, you know, we hear these statistics, but I want to know from you: What do you see this year that makes you know that young voter participation is rising?

Heather Smith, to you first.

HEATHER SMITH, Rock the Vote: Well, in every single primary this election cycle, literally primary after primary, caucus after caucus, we've seen voter turnout amongst those under the age of 30 double, triple, even quadruple.

And just the sheer number of people going to the polls, casting their ballot, saying, "Enough is enough," and speaking up for their own future, it's been amazing to see in almost every single primary and caucus this election cycle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jessica Lee, what do you see?

JESSICA LEE, Virginia Commonwealth University alumna: Right. Aside from just the numbers, it's now becoming a part of youth culture. You know, you see it on people's backpacks and their campaign buttons everywhere you go on campus. It's on their bumper sticker.

People are displaying very, very proudly their affiliations with the campaign. It's on their Web sites and it's definitely a conversation. Wherever you go, even among the people who don't consider themselves politically savvy, it's going to be in their conversations and on their minds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Sujatha Jahagirdar in Los Angeles with the New Voter Project, how different is this from what we saw in 2000 and 2004?

SUJATHA JAHAGIRDAR, New Voters Project, Student Public Interest Research Groups: Well, Judy, while it's absolutely true that the striking thing about this year is that, in a primary season that is known for its unpredictability, the one thing that has remained constant is that young people are turning out in droves.

But the real story here is that young people have been turning out for many election cycles. In fact, in 2004, youth turnout increased by more than 11 percent, which was almost triple the increase we saw in the general population.

So what we hope we see this election cycle is the permanent death of the notion that young people don't vote and young people don't matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jose Torres in Chicago, is it your sense that this is being generated by young people themselves or is it the candidates and the campaigns that are causing this to happen?

JOSE TORRES, DePaul University student: I want to say it's a mixture of both. The young people have really influenced the campaigns, so there can be a network tap-in, especially the way Obama and McCain have tried to do it, along with Hillary Clinton.

So it's the campaign of both parties. The young people are really stepping up to the plate. They are really trying to get engaged, and the campaigns are not denying them. They're actually giving them the chance to speak, to get involved, and to go out and campaign for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jose, to follow up, what's your sense of why young people are more interested?

JOSE TORRES: I want to say unity. Young people are young. They say we're politically apathetic. I disagree.

You know, I think a lot of us have been through, you know, a lot of political insecurity in this nation. And young people tend to be wanting to grasp this and say, "You know what? I'm tired of this. I want to better myself through voting, through getting myself involved, through getting my friends involved, through making my decisions myself."

Why get involved?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karin Agness, you're supporting John McCain. What's your sense of why? Why are you, why are other young people involved?

KARIN AGNESS, University of Virginia School of Law student: Getting involved? I think it's really, for me and my friends, you see two very different visions of America offered, one on the right and one on the left. And so there's even more of a push to get involved.

We see in Washington the Republicans have controlled Congress, and yet they're spending more and more. And so I think we feel kind of a need to jump in and get involved and say, "We can't leave this up to our leaders anymore. We want to influence the campaigns at the grassroots level before they're elected, so hopefully we have a say after they're elected."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jessica Lee, what's your sense of why? What's motivating you and people you know?

JESSICA LEE: In the 2004 cycle, the biggest thing that I heard from young voters was that they weren't voting because they didn't think it mattered. They either didn't think that the candidates were different enough or they didn't think that their vote mattered.

But I think, after these last eight years, it's very, very clear that this is a real choice. You can see it just in the candidates we have, an African-American and a woman running. We can see the gap in the policy between the two sides.

And then the system has made it so that every vote really does matter this election cycle. It's not just up to Iowa and New Hampshire, but people from every state actually get a chance. I think that really does energize people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heather Smith, are there certain issues that are motivating young people different from older voters, or are they the same?

HEATHER SMITH: Well, you know, they care about the same issues as all voters do and as all people do. But, of course, it's about how it affects their lives, and their friends' lives, and their families' lives, and the lives of those that they love and care about.

And so it might have a slightly different take on it, but it's still the same issues. And the millions of young people that we registered to vote, even through Rock the Vote, we ask every single one of them, "What do you care most about? And what's motivating you to get registered for this election cycle?" And the top issue by far is the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As it is for older voters.

HEATHER SMITH: As it is for older voters. And then the next issues are the war in Iraq, health care, college affordability, the environment. You make your way down the line, but they all have an economic kind of slant to them, right?

And so it's not being able to afford health care. And, in fact, 18- to 29-year-olds are the most uninsured age group in our country.

It's not being able to afford to go to college and, if you do, graduating with $22,000 worth of debt on average right now. It's not only finding a job, but finding a job that pays decent enough wages.

So I really think that the economic situation is something of great concern to young people. They're quite afraid for their futures and the direction of our country. They've had enough and said, "As a generation, we can make change. We have no choice. This is our future."

And you're seeing them take that to the ballot box this year in record numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sujatha Jahagirdar, what would you add to that?

SUJATHA JAHAGIRDAR: Well, I think it's absolutely true that young people are motivated by the issues this election cycle. But I think also another factor is a documented rise in the rates of volunteerism and civic engagement amongst young people that experts have been seeing for the past decade-and-a-half.

And I think you're seeing this year that civic engagement and volunteerism spill over into the political arena.

Also, we know, from 25 years of engaging young people and expert studies done at Yale University and other places, that the best way to get young people out to vote is for one young person to tell another young person, "Show up. Show up on election day."

And this election cycle, you're seeing campaigns actually take on that mantle and really invest unprecedented levels of resources into making that happen. And I think you're seeing the effects of that very clearly this election cycle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just quickly follow up, Sujatha, and ask you about the mechanics of getting young people to vote, the mechanics of getting them to register. Is it harder today, easier today than ever before?

SUJATHA JAHAGIRDAR: Well, what we found, starting 25 years ago when we first -- the Student PIRG started doing this work and today is that the best way to get a young person out to vote is to have another young person tell them, "Show up. It's important."

And so it's actually not that difficult. You just have to actually spend the time and the resources to getting out to talk to young people.

So we stand out on college campuses and stop students on their way to class. We hold "Text Out Your Vote" events in classrooms, where we ask students not only to register to vote, but also to whip out their cell phones and text their friends.

And we've found actually, in places where we've done this consistently and in a considerable way, that we've been able to generate turnout rates among young people of more than 86 percent.

Using technology to reach voters

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to pick up on what you were saying about the peer-to-peer contacts that go on, Karin Agness. One of the things that's remarkable to me that we're hearing, it's not just the fact that you've got the cell phones and the Internet, but it's the fact that young people are communicating directly with one another, urging them to get involved and stay involved.

KARIN AGNESS: Right. I think, as young people, it's much more influential when you have somebody your age sending you a text message or sending you an e-mail or a phone call, rather than getting an e-mail from the campaign itself or from an older person.

And one of the technologies that's really big right now is the blogs. And I even send out blog, you know, posts to friends and through those infrastructure...

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you send them out?

KARIN AGNESS: Through the blogs. I either, you know, have my e-mail list that I forward things to or actually, on the blogs themselves, you can often put in e-mail addresses and subscribe people to them.

And one of the blogs that I think is the most fun to go to is McCain's daughter's blog, And I think it's very authentic. It's not a dry political blog, where it's just papers and speeches.

It's actually commentary on the shoes that people are wearing and music that's playing at the different campaign events. And so it really brings a young perspective to the campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jose Torres, what about you, in terms of communicating with other young people? I mean, how do you do this? Are you using the Internet, what?

JOSE TORRES: The Internet is huge. I think I use a lot of Facebook. I use e-mails. I use text messages. I have e-mail on my phone, so I tend to get in contact with all the people that work with me, especially on election day.

E-mail was humongous. I sent a lot of e-mails out and people responded. People really got intact and really came out and said, "You know what? I got this e-mail. It's on this date, this time. I got all the information. I'm going out there."

And I think we are so technologically advanced compared to other generations that we tend to say, you know, this is the easiest way to do -- like, for example, I threw a text-messaging party, where we text-messaged all of our supporters to go out and vote for Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You threw a text-messaging party? How does that work?

JOSE TORRES: What you do is you gather a bunch of friends and you say, "I'm going to text everybody to make sure to remind them that early voting begins next week, and vote for Obama, if you're an Obama supporter."

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don't have to be in the same room to have this party. You can do it from wherever you are?

JOSE TORRES: Absolutely. If you have a text message and you know people that are Obama supporters, you can text them. And hopefully they will go out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jessica Lee, a Hillary Clinton supporter, there are also some obstacles, though, to young people voting. There have been a lot of discussion about the voter identification laws that exist in different parts of the country.

JESSICA LEE: Right. Right. One of the largest concerns that we're having right now is with the registrar's office. A lot of times, college students, we have two homes. And to register to vote, it's often difficult for students.

A lot of states have registrars that have pretty much unlimited say-so. So if they don't want a college student to be able to vote in a particular town, it's up to them.

We've heard students who had been threatened that their financial aid might be in jeopardy if they register in a specific town versus others.

We also have, I guess, larger problems when it comes with absentee balloting. It has been on the rise. And it really shows that, when we have absentee ballots and when people have access to these ballots, the voter turnout goes up, but it's hard for us to get those up sometimes. You have very long deadlines, as well.

Candidates enlist youth

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heather Smith, I want to point out that much of what we're talking about here are students, young people who are in school, in college. They really make up, what, a third to a half of this age cohort? What about all those young people who are not in school? How do you reach them, to get them to register to vote?

HEATHER SMITH: Yes, well, that's true. It's about a third of young people are in college, but the vast majority of 18- to 29-year-olds are not.

And, you know, we go where they are. We meet them where they're at. You find places where they're already congregating. It's the same basic principles of organizing.

And right now, because it's such a connected generation, it is a lot easier, so we can use cell phones to find them on their cell phones. We can use the Internet, places where they're congregated.

We can use broadcasts and television and radio and speak to them through, you know, artists and public service announcements and bring them in. But we can also go to the clubs, the bars, the hangouts, the coffee shops, the barber shops, and all those same places, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to touch base with the three of you who identify with a particular candidate. Jose, back to you quickly, what is Barack Obama doing right now to reach out to young people?

JOSE TORRES: One thing that he's doing great is all his ads, his Facebook posts, MySpace, e-mails, even text messages they're sending.

And I think the greatest thing he did was in Iowa caucus. If you looked at all the caucuses -- Hillary Clinton, McCain, Huckabee -- no one had youth behind them like Barack Obama had.

The second caucus, Hillary picked up and started having youth behind her. I think Obama...


JOSE TORRES: I think Obama really tapped into this network by demonstrating that, when he won Iowa, behind him were the people who helped him win, young faces, young culture, a new generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jessica, what about, as a Hillary Clinton supporter, what is she doing right now to reach out to young people?

JESSICA LEE: I've seen it infiltrate really all levels of the campaign. If you look at some of the staff that are working there, you know, we have former presidents of the Young Democrats of America, people that have represented young people, and then even down at the ground level, giving out signs and t-shirts and pins for free makes a difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Karin Agness, what about McCain? What's he doing right now?

KARIN AGNESS: Two things. First, he's laying out a clear vision for America and for the future. And I think we are sick of the rhetoric and want some meat. And he's giving us that meat and that vision that we can get behind.

And, secondly, he's continuing to embody that youth spirit, that rebel, you know, he's out there fighting out at town hall meetings and continuing to kind of -- he might be the oldest candidate out there, but he's the one that I think embodies that youth spirit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Sujatha, I want to come back to you, because a lot of people say, "OK, all well and good. These young people are engaged in the primaries." But is it going to last? Are they going to be involved in the general election and beyond this year?

SUJATHA JAHAGIRDAR: Yes, well, I think when you look at why young people are turning out this year, which I think ranges from an increase in the civic engagement culture, to the efforts to reach out to young people, to the issues, all of that is going to continue into the general election.

We don't anticipate any of these factors fading. So we're very excited about 2008, and we really hope that it does mark the end of this notion that young people don't vote and young people don't matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very, very quickly, Heather Smith, it's still for young people generally a lower percentage turnout than for other age groups, but we're talking about comparisons here, aren't we?

HEATHER SMITH: Yes, we are. And I have to tell you, things are changing. It's a huge generation entering the electorate. We'll be a third of the entire voting population within the next couple of years.

And this movement that's been building for a number of years is just exploding right now. You're going to see record turnout in 2008.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Heather Smith of Rock the Vote, Jessica Lee, thank you very much, Karin Agness, and to you, Sujatha Jahagirdar in Los Angeles, and Jose Torres in Chicago, thank you all.