The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



ELECTION IN FOCUS: Youth vote could be major factor in election outcome

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pollsters and pundits are making predictions about the outcome of the presidential election, but for all the pontificating, one of the biggest Election Day uncertainties is whether the “youth vote,” young people between the ages of 18 and about 29, will vote in significant numbers.

“Some people say, it’s the young vote … that would decide the election one way or another, if they really get out and vote for [Democratic candidate Sen. Barack] Obama,” said Jack Colwell, a political columnist for the South Bend Tribune and a Notre Dame professor in the Journalism, Ethics and Democracy program.

If the youth vote does not materialize, he said, then Republican candidate Sen. John McCain has a better chance of winning.

Nov. 4 marks the first time most Notre Dame students can vote in a presidential election. But based on the past youth voting record, it is likely that many students at Notre Dame, and many young people across the country, will not vote.

“Young people just don’t have a history of voting,” Notre Dame political science professor David Nickerson said. Since young people tend to move around the country more often than older people, they are harder for campaigns to mobilize. Voting is a habit, Nickerson said, so once a person votes, he is more likely to vote the next time.

Many young people have not developed the habit, he said.

Others may believe their vote does not matter, Colwell said.

“They may be soured by politics, or have the theory that they are all crooks, or that none of them are going to do anything, which isn’t true, because elections do matter,” Colwell said.

The high point for the youth vote was the 1960s, Nickerson said, but since then, the percentage of younger voters has declined. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he made an “unprecedented outreach to young voters,” Nickerson said, and that caused a jump in the number of young people who voted.

This year, Nickerson said, more young people than in the past have been responding in surveys that they are likely to vote.

“The general consensus is that turnout will be higher amongst young people [this year] than in 2004,” Nickerson said.

Colwell agreed that young people seem more interested in the 2008 election than presidential elections four and eight years ago.

“This time, they seem to be more interested in the election, probably realizing that there is a lot more at stake,” he said.

Issues like the Iraq War, the environment and energy initially attracted the interest of the young electorate, Colwell said.

Obama has inspired many young voters to become interested in politics for the first time, Nickerson said. Obama has been aggressively courting the youth vote, pushing for people to apply for absentee ballots if they are out of state on Nov. 4. McCain has also targeted young voters, but where Obama’s approach has been broad-based, McCain’s is more selective, aimed at young people likely to vote Republican, Nickerson said.

But it will be another week before the McCain and Obama campaigns will be able to tell whether their youth strategy has worked.

Based on their observations and interactions, some Notre Dame professors and students predicted a high percentage of Notre Dame students would vote.

Notre Dame students are more interested in the turnout of this election than they have been in the past, Colwell said, offering anecdotal evidence from his classes and his time on campus.

Two months ago, Colwell was part of a panel during a “Pizza, Pop and Politics” event hosted by ND Votes ’08, a campaign of the Center for Social Concerns.

“I was just amazed that the [Coleman-Morse] Lounge was standing room only,” he said. “And even afterward, there were still students around wanting to talk about the election.”

Junior Ed Yap, the president of the Notre Dame College Republicans, said he thinks the majority of his classmates have registered to vote.

“I think Notre Dame students will vote in higher percentages than students at other universities,” he said.

Senior Spencer Howard, the co-president of the Notre Dame College Democrats, agreed with Yap that Notre Dame students have been energized by the election.

“This year has been a really pleasant surprise,” he said. “Our students have become excited by the election.”

Yap said he hopes students turn out in large numbers for what he said is an important election, especially for the future of the economy.

“This election right now is the most important for our lifetime,” Yap said. “It’s the election most prior to when we enter the workforce.”

Students realize they are going to be affected by the results of the election, said sophomore Ben Linskey, the co-president of the Notre Dame College Libertarians. Walking around campus or eating at the dining hall, Linskey said he overhears people talking about the election.

“I think that’s going to translate into a lot of students going out to vote,” Linskey said.