March 2008 Issue
by Gina Pantone
Welcome to the future — where instant gratification is a way of life. Myriad data is accessible at any given moment, bombarding the atmosphere with hyper-advertising and flaring tempers. Anyone born after 1979 knows no other universe. They barely remember the days when entertainment was fiction, lead paint was edible and phones were stationary. In this endless pit of reality television, high-definition video games and internet dating lies the potential to change an election…and possibly a nation.
The newly-coined “Millennial Generation”, the aptly named group of citizens aged 18 to 29, has taken on quite the civic responsibility in the 2008 presidential election thus far — or so it would appear. The youth voter registration and turnout has been the highest in ages, and this is only for the primaries. Perhaps it is the remaining days of an unpopular administration drawing its last breath. Maybe it’s the fear of a dangerous, lingering war whose victims are creeping into an increasing amount of families and social circles. Whatever the motivation, it seems the kids are logging off their computers and heading into the voting booths.
According to the Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) based at the University of Maryland, youth votes were higher than ever in nearly every state that held a caucus or primary election on this past February 5, or “Super Tuesday”. The same could be said in the South, with some states even tripling in youth voter numbers since the 2000 election. Many would attribute this to the “Obama Factor”. Illinois Senator Barack Obama is getting the most youth support — with a charisma and charm so contagious that many have given him rock star status. Compared to the other candidates in the polls, he currently has the highest appeal to the younger crowd by far.
Prof. Peter Kirstein in the History and Political Science Department at Saint Xavier University in Chicago witnessed this unbridled Obama enthusiasm. “The Millennials are having an impact on the Democratic primary. Many out-of-state students returned to Iowa over winter break to vote primarily for Senator Barack Obama and may have had an impact on his win,” Kirstein said. “Equally as important, many are working on his campaign — which is the real stuff of politics.”
Although a high percentage of Obama’s voters are of college age, they are not solely responsible for his gains. Kirstein clarifies, “I would not attribute the Obama victories solely to the Millennials. Apparently, his support is stronger among higher-educated white voters, among white males and among African-American voters. I think there is a tendency to marginalize the Millennials as smitten by love or rock star status. Let us recall that about 40 percent of this latest designer-name generation is minority — Asian, Latino/a, African-American — and that may play a role in group-identity politics.” Brent Koepp, a 20-year-old political science major at the University of California-Irvine, sees it a different way. “The youth are starting to become more interested in politics because America’s recent problems — the war, the economy, expensive education — are now affecting them,” he said. “They know that they have to invest in this country, because it is their future.”
There is no doubt the Millennials have taken more of an interest this time around, but are they capable of swinging an election any way they see fit? The youth vote has always been unreliable, with voters under the age of 30 often showing up sparsely or under-informed and failing to meet turnout expectations. Yet at the time of publication, Senator Obama had just won his tenth caucus in a row in his home state of Hawaii. Reporters no longer refer to his campaign as a contest, but rather as a social movement. Young people everywhere are volunteering and attending fundraisers.
Sean Flynn, a 23-year-old law student at Saint Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, experienced this phenomenon firsthand. “The Millennial Generation is active in the political election process by helping with campaigns. Many people in my school are very active in the Obama camp here in San Antonio. I’ve also been contacted by two younger representatives of the National Campaign for Barack Obama to enlist my help. Despite a poor showing in the past, I feel that feelings of hope and change will draw young voters to the polls in November.”
Flynn, a native Democrat in Texas, is also looking ahead to the big Texas primary on March 4. “Well looking at the current election, I think parts of Texas like Denton and Austin where there is a large youth population will be important. I think the youth vote is crucial in my state in general because not only does the nation need a change, but also the youth of Texas need to help change politics in Texas. The youth, along with all those people also wanting change, need to alter the shape of Texas politics.”
Yes, the Millennial Generation has often been criticized for their lethargic tendencies. Compared to the active young people in the ‘60s, who some would say were largely responsible for the civil rights movement and ending the Vietnam War, these kids look like amateurs.
Heather Mulry, a 25-year-old options clerk at the Chicago Board of Trade, thinks this stereotype comes from lack of experience under the gun, not blind indolence. “I think a lot of our generation has been spoiled; not so much lazy, more a lack of perspective. For example, women have always had the right to vote, the right to work, the right to have abortions and get contraception. We haven’t really had to fight for these rights like previous generations. The threat of having these rights taken away can spur some people into action, but many others simply believe everything will remain status quo.” She added: “I also believe a lot of our youth feel like our votes don’t really matter. With the Electoral College, most of the country wanting Gore to win in 2000 but it going to Bush, etc. I think hearing things like that jade younger generations and make them feel that our political system is corrupt anyway, so why bother going through the trouble of voting?”
Joe Buczyna, a 26-year-old recent political science graduate at Saint Francis University in Joliet, has faith in his demographic. “Our generation has a unique opportunity to not only impact the current election but also build upon the foundation that has been created. Young people are proving that they are not disengaged and lazy, we finally feel we have a candidate [Obama] that not only speaks for us, but also asks us to participate. I feel that young people will remain engaged if real change is being accomplished.”
Only time will tell if the fate of this legendary election will lie with the establishment’s children, but few can deny the impression they have already made with the primaries. One thing is certain, the passion and sense of duty is not lost among the Millennials. Even if the youth does not ultimately decide the outcome, they have definitely made their presence known.
CI Political File #005