Campus & Community

Kids more involved in politics

3 min read

Young adults are substantially more involved in the 2004 presidential race than they were in the 2000 race. If the trend continues, higher turnout in November is nearly a certainty, according to the Shorenstein Center’s Vanishing Voter Project.

In a national survey conducted the week of Super Tuesday in 2004, nearly half of adults between the ages of 18 and 30 said they had read, seen, or heard an election news story within the past day. In a survey during the same week in 2000, only slightly more than a third made this claim. Compared with 2000, younger adults were also more likely (39 percent versus 29 percent) to say they had talked about the campaign within the past day and more likely (43 percent to 26 percent) to say they had spent time in the past day thinking about the campaign.

Campaign involvement among adults over 30 was also higher this year than during the comparable period of the 2000 campaign, but by only a small margin.

A key to understanding the heightened interest of young adults in this year’s election is their belief that the stakes are high. At the time of the Super Tuesday contests, nearly three in five (57 percent) of younger adults felt the election would have “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of impact on the future of the country. In fact, younger adults were more likely than older adults (51 percent) to have this belief. In 2000, only a third (33 percent) of young adults felt that the election’s outcome would have a substantial influence on the country’s future.

Young adults account for much of the decline in electoral participation and interest during recent decades. Their turnout rate in the 1972 general election was nearly 50 percent. In 2000, it was barely above 30 percent. If the heightened interest young adults have shown so far this year should continue to November, they could help reverse the downward trend in voter turnout. Studies show that if young adults vote in one of the first two or three presidential elections in which they are eligible, they are likely to vote with some frequency throughout the rest of their adult lives.

With eight months still to go before the November election, higher turnout is not a certainty. The 1972 presidential election, which was also waged against the backdrop of a controversial war and a wobbly economy, had high turnout during the nominating phase but disappointingly low turnout in November. However, the 2004 election differs in important respects from the 1972 election. Then, the Democratic Party was deeply divided over issues of policy and leadership, and many Democrats chose to stay home on Election Day. Further, the 1972 election produced a landslide victory for the Republican incumbent. In 2004, both parties are united behind their nominees, and the polls, so far, indicate a tight race. Should these conditions hold, America’s voters in November could go to the polls in resounding numbers.