In November of 2008, young liberals rushed voting booths with the same ferocity that Lawrence Taylor once rushed quarterbacks. The overwhelming support of America’s youth gave Barack Obama all the surge he needed for an historical victory.
But as far as many young people are concerned today, that was sooooooo 2008….
The Pains of Campaigns
Four years ago, Barack Obama won the presidential election quite handily, in large part because he captured the attention of young voters (ages 18-30). That year, two-thirds of Millennials voted for Obama leaving a much smaller slice of the pie to the elder statesman, John McCain. (The predictions about Gen Y’s tremendous impact on the 2008 electionprompted me to write on the subject in January of that year.)
But it’s been a long four years for young people…especially for the young people who voted for Obama in 2008 and still don’t have a job today in spite of now having a college degree. Although President Obama will probably carry the youth vote in 2012, as well, this unfortunate reality has prompted some pundits to label many Millennial voters as “young and restless.”
But maybe the experts should just call them “young and passive.”
Pew Research has just released the findings of their study on young people’s attitude about this year’s election, and it doesn’t look like good news for either candidate. The graphic at the right shows that there have been significant decreases in young people’s engagement in the presidential campaign; only half of the young people who were engaged in the 2008 election are following this year’s campaign news as closely as they did back then, and only 63% of them are confident they’ll even vote this time around.
Maybe that’s because only half of this demographic is even sure they’re registered to vote!
To counter young people’s rather sluggish involvement in the political process, Do Something launched their Vote Up or Shut Up campaign that’s devised to get young people registered to vote. Citing the fact that 12,000 kids turn 18 every day of the year, MTV ramped up their well-known Rock the Vote campaign, which made stops in my hometown of Tampa (for the RNC) and Charlotte (for the DNC) and plenty of cities in between. But as it stands right now, there are still millions of young people who remain politically inactive – and unregistered – this year.
Both candidates would love to woo young voters into their respective camps, but as parents and youth workers know, connecting with young people is much different that connecting with older adults.
Before dismissing Millennials as politically apathetic, consider the findings of researchers at Mills College and the University of Chicago. They claim that 41% of Millennials are just as engaged as they were four years ago, but these days young people have taken their political action online. In other words, they’ve made the debate digital.
One of the study’s authors, Joseph Kahne, said, “Young people who were engaged in ‘participatory politics’ were twice as likely to report voting as people who weren’t engaged.” The actual definition of these tech-based “participatory politics” may explain their optimism; these researchers labeled young people’s text messages and Facebook “likes” as political action.
That’s Gen Y. Changing the world one tweet at a time….
In response to young people’s preferences, Obama and Romney are trying to tap into the power of social media (and its influence on young people). Both candidates are trying to put their messages where they matter most: on young people’s mobile phones. Since half of young people (ages 18-24) say they’ve discussed the election with friends via text messaging, both candidates have produced their own apps for all those Millennial-owned smartphones.
But give the Internet its due, as well; the LA Times notes that the number of people who look for news online has tripled since 2000. And in the last 18 months, Romney and Obama have uploaded over 600 videos to their YouTube channels, garnering 2 billion total views. (That explains why YouTube launched the Election Hub in late August.)
But will these digital efforts be enough to paint young people “red” or “blue”?
Finding a Political Pulse
The political pulse of many young people has flatlined…along with the economy. Case in point, the very first question asked at the second presidential debate was from “a 20-year-old college student” named Jeremy who will be voting in his first election this year. He wanted to know which candidate would help him support himself after he graduated from college.
Given the weak economy, the recent violence in the Middle East, and the emotionally-charged divide over social issues like homosexuality, abortion, and health care, it’s easy to see why young people feel left out of this election season. But there are several things responsible parents and youth workers can do to help young people find their political pulse again.
- Help them understand both sides of the political fence, not just yours. As much as it may pain people to admit it, both Democrats and Republicans have some value hidden under their rhetoric. By helping them understand the strengths and the weaknesses of both parties, you’re also going to bolster young people’s decision-making skills.
- Watch the Debates with Your Kids. As Jonathan and I were talking about this article, he told me how he and Lori watched the last debate with their son Alec. “This provoked some really fun conversation,” Jonathan attested. “We’d pause it every once in a while and talk about what was being said. It was a great opportunity to talk about what was going on in our country.”
- Encourage them to vote, regardless of who it’s for. I personally know many people (young and old) who have said they won’t be voting this year because they’re too upset with the system and/or the candidates. This makes zero sense. Anyone with some world travel under their belt knows that, as flawed as our nation’s politics are, they’re still the best ever crafted by humans. Voting isn’t just a right; it’s a responsibility.
- Model appropriate political action for them. In addition to voting, pay attention to how often you scream at your television. Also, be mindful of how you speak about those who disagree with you. Above all, help the young people in your life understand how your faith informs your politics.
There’s a deadline for all this; our best efforts won’t do much good on November 7th. We have a small window of opportunity in which to pull young people out of their lethargic mindset. Let’s help young people put aside their procrastination so they can make a decision.
David R. Smith
David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.