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In search of the college vote

We asked journalist and civic educator Alexander Heffner to cover the college vote for us in the run-up to Election Day. This is the first in a series from his tour of campuses from Claremont to Mount Holyoke to the University of Nebraska — stay tuned for more. 

After two election cycles engaged intimately in the coverage of younger voters, their principal policy concerns, their grassroots engagement and their ultimate turnout on Election Day, I continue my study this fall to reveal what is driving the youth vote during this campaign cycle. In the run-up to November, I am visiting college campuses across the country, from New England schools of liberal arts to major public universities like University of California, Irvine.

Along the way, I have designed an evolving presentation for first-time college voters, aspiring journalists and graduate students that provides an historical overview of the youth vote’s impact on the American political system since 1972, as well as a real-time analysis of Millennials and the current presidential contest.

Over the last half-dozen years, as a reporter for both new and traditional media, I have been schooled in the demographic of digital natives – Millennials. To really understand this group, it is important to identify three important subsets in the context of President Obama’s re-election bid and the broader 2012 campaign.

(1) 18-21: The new idealists. These are the high school seniors and newly matriculated collegiate youth whose enthusiasm is less hampered by the recent economic downturn. Squarely in the Democratic Party’s corner, if galvanized, these voters are the potential game-changers who can swing a decisive margin of 18-29 year olds in the Obama- Biden column. The big question is whether these voters will constitute the largest voting pool within these subgroups. If so, they are poised to repeat the roughly two-third Gen Y majority that stampeded over the McCain-Palin ticket.

(2) 22-25: The pragmatists in limbo. These are the fatigued, in some cases, still willing Obama supporters. They are also the under- or unemployed twentysomething whose generally raw economic reality – college degree in hand or not – has not improved since President Obama took office. This group encompasses those who are cautiously loyal to the Democratic re-election effort as well as the skeptics who consider themselves disillusioned with the status quo and may consider a vote for Governor Romney.

(3) 26-29: The young professionals. These voters are primarily engaged in the workplace and, therefore, are the least likely to be volunteers and the most likely to be concerned with pocketbook issues, leading some to lean rightward but not necessarily those whose salaries do not exceed $100,000.

In all three brackets – but in 22-25 and 26-29 chiefly – we find examples of voters who believe President Obama has broken promises or was not the president they had envisioned.

Alexander's college vote questI launched my college tour at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York, where I moderated a panel on the 2012 presidential campaign and youth engagement. Among the student leaders, there was palpable fear that a Romney administration would slash severely or eliminate Pell Grants – needs-based funds for scholarships for under-served populations that have been instrumental in getting a generation of students into college and the job market.

Dekalb Avenue subway stop. Photo by David Shankbone

Dekalb Avenue subway stop. Photo by David Shankbone

In this urban hub, both the panelists and audience suggested their alarm at the decline – even impossibility – of social mobility in a culture in which student loan debt has outpaced the nation’s credit card balance. “We’re not all lazy,” promised the president of the school’s Brooklyn-based student body. These are precisely the 47% whom Governor Romney alienated when he said he was not “worried” about nearly half of the American electorate.

At Princeton, a university with an entirely different demographic, I met with primarily graduate students and a sprinkling of undergraduates. When pushed to answer for their lack of activism to battle corporate-backed two party monolith, graduate students said there were no efforts underway at University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to purge the pernicious influence of money in politics. That is proble

matic, as the nation requires such research hubs to execute strategies for troubleshooting what young people – and all age groups, according public opinion – believe to believe an unworkable government.

But all was not complacency at Princeton. I delivered a lunch talk, in which I argued that young people’s participation is centrally personality-driven – and got some push-back. I noted that the backlash against Vietnam led to the expansion of the voting age to 18, but since their first votes in the Nixon-McGovern match-up, only two specific elections experienced a substantial uptick in youth participation: 1992 and 2008. What was different? I argued that it was the personality of the candidates – Clinton’s serenading saxophone on MTV and Obama’s funnies on John Stewart’s Daily Show (and the couches of Leno and now Fallon). But this evidence, in the context of two centuries of American politics, is not scientific, as students pointed out.

Claremont College in California

Days later, I traveled westward for a talk at Claremont Graduate University’s Tuesday lecture series. On the Claremont College campuses, I interacted with two vastly different student bodies. At the School of Politics and Economics, fiscal and social conservative thought is as deeply embedded in the pulse of Claremont as bleeding- heart progressivism. In response to my presentation, one graduate student said that a lack of civic engagement and unlimited money-as-speech in modern campaigns do not necessarily hinder American democracy.

But Pitzer, the social-justice-inspired school in the Claremont consortium, is home to 2012 Obama organizers who were in high school during the Great Recession and his first campaign. While they notice fewer campaign T-shirts and backpack-stickers than the manic number they read about or saw themselves in 2008 – these students are optimistic that young voters will turn out forcefully for Obama as the “Forward” direction. They also unilaterally assert that voter ID laws are a partisan deterrent to stymie young people’s access to the ballot box.

LIU, Princeton and Claremont echoed the one unmistakable truth I’ve noticed is common to all young voters: Washington D.C. is dysfunctional; and the worse it gets, the more young Americans cannot help but tune out. In every trip so far, I concluded with a similar question: How does Gen Y turn online social activism, like tweets and Facebook posts, into votes and actual nonpartisan change? (I like to point out that if young people’s social media accounts had decided the fate of the Republican primary, Congressman Paul would be the GOP nominee.)

In my upcoming round of campus visits, I will focus of the technologies that fuel younger voters. In the final three installments of this series, my stories will delve into specific issues, like education and health care, and certain subsets of the youth bloc, like Hispanic and African American voters.

Alexander Heffner

Alexander Heffner

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.

As Alexander prepares for his next trips – to Union College, Binghamton University, and UC Irvine – what would you like him to ask the young people of America?