Friday, May 25, 2018
Perspective

The youth vote isn't what it was

In the fall of 2007, I launched a grassroots journalism operation, SCOOP08, to cover the 2008 presidential campaign, weaving together reporting by and for young people across the country. Over the course of the primary and general election campaign, we tackled the public policy debates and generational challenges most directly affecting college and high school students as well as recent graduates.

At the time, I was a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the nation's oldest prep school, where popular political figures like alum and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush frequently surface. Coordinating our online coverage from my dormitory, Andover Cottage, I reported on campuses that were abuzz with a conviction in "Hope and Change" and keen on marshaling a new era of presidential leadership that would transcend partisan gridlock.

Four years later, to many young Americans, the promise of a less divided and more effective government that really understands their concerns remains out of reach. In the heat of the campaign's partisan warfare, that vision is more inaccessible than in 2008. This fall, I have traveled to a diverse cross-section of America's universities, from large public schools (University of Nebraska) to small liberal arts colleges (Haverford), where I am lecturing on the youth vote. From these campuses, I am filing a series of reports as a special correspondent for PBS's Need to Know, a nationally syndicated newsmagazine.

When I returned to Andover this fall, I met intelligent students with diverse viewpoints. In recent history, the campus has been a bustling embodiment of American youth from every quarter. There is the student whose sibling now has access to health insurance under his parents' plan. But then there's another whose father, a doctor, believes he will be financially stung by Obamacare.

While a majority of these young Americans are ineligible to cast a first-time vote, nearly a quarter of American students can. What these students concede themselves is that the more they veer toward truly independent citizenship — in high school and beyond as students and future job-seekers — the more politics will tangibly impact them.

On the college campuses I have visited, from the Claremont consortium to upstate New York's Binghamton University, the zeal of young people's engagement has seemed to considerably diminish. Students who remember their high schools as hotbeds of political activity now say support for President Barack Obama is underwhelming.

The economic reality of the post-grad job market is partially responsible. According to an Associated Press study from earlier this year, nearly half of recent graduates are underemployed or jobless. With Millennial unemployment traveling upward under Obama's tenure, young people are more inclined to be filing job applications than canvassing for his re-election, be it on the streets of St. Petersburg or in a major urban center like Chicago.

Immersed in the tainted culture of Washington, D.C., it was expected, if not inevitable, that the president would lose a degree of his mojo with young voters. Still, the president still has an unrivaled connection to youth culture, from his Daily Show appearances to his own fatherhood of teenage girls, that Gov. Mitt Romney does not possess as a significantly older grandfather.

While he has not improved long-term social mobility for Gen Y, the president has a track record of fighting for young people's higher education agenda, be it the expansion of Pell Grants or university funding for departmental research and development.

While the Obama for America enthusiasm is not viral as in 2008, it may be that there is a quiet acknowledgment of the president's work on behalf of younger voters and that they need to move "Forward" alongside his continued stewardship of the economy. But, beyond this election cycle, young people are outspoken about their underrepresentation in the nation's democracy. In a post-Citizens United era of oversized corporate influence in politics, young people are most vocal about their constantly shrinking importance as a single voter. In my most recent trips to the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Chicago, young people seem increasingly worried about the perpetual campaign — rather than thoughtful policymaking — that inhabits the great majority of politicians' time. And whether the Democrat or Republican prevails this year, there is a growing sentiment among the nation's young people that they have to contemplate alternatives to traditional party campaigns to bring the requisite fresh blood to quicken the nation's pulse.

Alexander Heffner, a regular contributor to Perspective, is a special correspondent for PBS's "Need to Know" covering the campaign's college vote. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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