Where’s Alexander: Battleground Youth in Heartland U.S.A.

Alexander Heffner presents the fourth installment of his tour assessing the youth vote on America’s college campuses. Read Part I: In search of the college vote, Part II: Chasing the dreamPart III: Demographics and the millennial vote.

The hours are counting down until Americans will elect a new president.

While 18 to 29-year-olds comprise a significant share of the electorate, if historical trends are an accurate indicator, millennials may not turn out to vote at the higher rates of other age brackets, even if they previously supported a candidate. After a sharp uptick in 1992, for example, the turnout among young people for President Bill Clinton fell precipitously four years later.

I have just returned from my final pre-election destinations: the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and Bryn Mawr College, a small all-women’s liberal arts college in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. In my last update, I promised a nuanced assessment of young people’s views on the issues, especially in terms of the policies guiding the last four years and their alternatives. But what I continue to find is that young people lack strong views on the Obama administration’s health care overhaul and his cornerstone education initiatives.

Two key components of health care reform that apply to the college-age constituency — extended coverage under family plans and for preexisting conditions — have not been enough to resurrect the mobilization of 2008. And while President Obama has increased the federal Pell Grant program, the size of the average student loan and debt remains on the rise.

The economic status of the low and middle-income “New Idealists”  (18-21) and “Pragmatists in Limbo” (22-25) remains unchanged since the President’s inauguration, and there is little sentiment that social mobility will improve anytime soon.

The trip to the University of Nebraska was my most comprehensive view inside the modern campus. Nebraska is one of two states that can split its Electoral College votes — and the decision made by students here might impact the election just as votes from the contested swing states.

Moreover, in heartland U.S.A., it was instructive to gauge the attitudes of the battleground youth of the Rust Belt. While Nebraska has a majority in-state population, others hail predominantly from Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, among other bellwethers. Nebraska, in both demographics and politics, is rapidly changing. At a dinner among honor students, one young man argued that the increasing voltage of conservatism can be attributed to the alienation of moderate-to-devout religious voters who feel excluded from the public square, which bars prayers before public school football games and Christmas lights around public facilities are barred.

If there is one issue that does strike a chord with the fiscal conservatism of younger Nebraskan voters, it is paying down our national debt. But will this issue stimulate long-term youth investment in the nation’s politics? The “Big Red” prides itself on a successful B.C.S.-winning football program. In the life of its stadium, the program has sold-out the maximum 85,000 capacity in every game since 1962. The question I posed: In the absence of a military draft or a depression/terrorism-like calamity, can universities engineer a civic revival that will jam-pack students and locals in that same stadium?

Over the span of nearly one week, I visited over a dozen journalism, mass media and political science classes. These students believe that there are structural flaws embedded in the fabric of modern-day American democracy: the $2 billion campaign season, the negative campaign blitz  and two party hyper-partisanship. Moreover, these students believe their votes do not matter.

Students preparing for careers in journalism tended to be among the most informed, often because their homework includes reading the news. While committed to infusing social media with journalism – including the experiences and perspectives of citizens – they also believe journalists should do more to present alternatives to the American public. For example, an entire room of students raised their hands when I asked if the presidential debates would have improved had they included at least one third party candidate.

Notably, these students also believe we ought to digitize the nation’s democratic DNA in order to ensure young people will participate on par with other age blocs. In connection with youth voters, one of the most important topics is the necessity of a tech revolution in the electoral process.

But the nation still votes tomorrow, and based on my reporting over the last two months, it is hard to imagine that Obama will outperform or repeat his 66% margin of victory from the 2008 campaign cycle. Because of the bottom-up beginnings of Obama for America, Democrats argued that young people – especially twenty-something women – represented a new base for the party. But the lack of youth participation in the 2010 midterms, which gave way to vast Tea Party gains, somewhat discredits that idea.

There is a movement to counter the tide of disengagement, but it is seemingly small in scale: One young woman studying at Bryn Mawr said that her campus is unusually active: “40% of students” she believes are engaged on campus as volunteers or surrogates in the swing-state of Pennsylvania. She conceded, however, that the neighboring Haverford population is not quite as involved.

So how will the youth vote go down? In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, one possibility is that young people will quietly line up in unison to support the party concerned about global climate’s impact on the environment, a view deeply rooted in millennials’ conviction in social justice. The fewer young voters the Obama campaign turns out in its column, the more the Democratic ticket will need older women, Hispanics and elderly voters to offset the potential electoral youth disinterest.

The last two installments of this series will appear directly after the presidential election. On November 7, I will visit Tulane University in the red state of Louisiana, where I will report on student reaction below the Bible Belt. A week later, I visit Mount Holyoke in rural Massachusetts, an liberal collegiate scene where blue progressives largely dominate. My sixth and final report will appear shortly after that trip.

I will have the opportunity to weigh post-election responses in clashing electoral universes. Even there is the expected outcome in each state — Louisiana for Romney and Massachusetts for Obama — will the next generation find common ground in their final analyses of the campaign and aspirations for the nation’s future?

Alexander Heffner is a journalist and civic educator who has reported extensively on the youth vote and the political engagement of young voters. His writing has appeared in leading newspapers and magazines and his analysis has been featured on nationally broadcast media outlets. He founded and edited SCOOP08 and SCOOP44, the first-ever online national student newspapers covering the 2008 presidential campaign and the first year of the Obama presidency. He also directed a nonprofit initiative for which he designed and taught civic education and journalism in under-served New York City classrooms. Read more about Alexander and his work here.

 
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