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Election Sparks Interest in Politics Among Younger Voters

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By Cristina Fernandez-Pereda and Ariel Olson Surowidjojo
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 3, 2008; 9:00 AM

Historically, they've been seen as liberal, Democratic, anti-war and seemingly too young to be concerned about the state of the national economy. But though this generation's most defining factor has been that their voter turnout made them appear to be either too apathetic or too turned off by politics to vote, in recent elections younger voters have become more engaged in the political process.

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Today, with a newly energized young electorate, more young voters are exercising their right to vote. Youth voter turnout in 2008 has doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in some primary states compared to their levels in 2004. In Democratic primaries, young people have gone from being 9 percent of all voters four years ago to 14 percent of voters this year.

And, while the presidential candidates point out the changes they will make if elected, young voters are signaling a change of their own. With the crucial Ohio and Texas primaries just a day away, economic concerns have surpassed the war in Iraq as a hot-button issue among young voters.

"The growing cost of college is directly affecting the average student and forcing them to graduate hundreds of thousands dollars in debt," said Rachael Monnin, a student at American University, who said she plans to vote in Ohio. "Instead of the fresh, bright, boundless future we're told about in high school, we're forced to worry about enormous loans and the necessity of a job lined up immediately after graduation."

In online interviews with 128 young people in four battleground states - Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Virginia - more than 67 percent of the respondents identified the economy as a very important voting issue in the 2008 presidential election. The war in Iraq followed second, with 64 percent. Young people also were very concerned about health care, with 46 percent of respondents saying health care is a very important issue in the presidential campaign. The fourth most important issue, according to young voters, was the environment, with 37 percent ranking it as a very important issue. The online survey was conducted from Feb. 15 to Feb. 22 by graduate journalism students at American University in Washington, D.C.

"For my generation, which will be moving into the workforce in the next 5-to-10 years, buying houses, paying taxes and eventually need[ing] social security; I believe a bad economy will have the greatest effect on our livelihood," said Cory Hawkins, a freshman at Eckerd College in Florida.

Nearly half of the young people surveyed said that they do not think they will be able to afford to buy a home in the next five years, and 61 percent of young voters said that politicians are not paying enough attention to economic issues facing young voters. Many said that politicians should be paying more attention to student debt and student loans, the high cost of tuition and the economy overall. But young voters are also thinking about tax rates, foreign debt and the war in Iraq.

"The next administration will be burdened with an outrageous deficit that we need to turn around in order to improve the job market, housing and return interest rates to equilibrium," said Shannon Hopkins, a senior from Ohio Wesleyan University. "Balancing our country's economy is essential to support the social programs that each candidate has set forth."

While 51 percent of those surveyed said they had approximately the same level of concern about the war in Iraq now as they did a year ago, many linked Iraq directly to their growing apprehension about the economy.

Lawrence Murphy, a junior at Florida State University, said the U.S. economy "is being sucked dry by the war. ... This one issue affects almost every other important issue facing our country right now."

According to the survey, health care is another area of concern for many young voters.

"Health care is something everyone should have and not have to worry about," said Heem Mehmood, a freshman at Virginia Tech. "It's ridiculous that today nearly 50 million Americans are without health care and dying because of it when we are the wealthiest and most developed country in the world."

Reflecting an upsurge in young voters'engagement with Campaign 2008, all the young people interviewed said they were registered to vote or plan to register to vote before November. Nearly 97 percent of the respondents said they plan to vote in the general election, and many reported that they already had voted or were planning to vote in a primary or caucus. More than 90 percent of the respondents said that they expect their generation will have either some influence or a lot of influence in deciding who will be the next president.

When asked to volunteer the name of the candidate they would vote for if the presidential election were held today, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) got the most votes among the survey's respondents, drawing 54 percent. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)., came in second, with 19 percent of the respondents choosing him. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), came in third, with 10 percent of the respondents selecting her as their candidate of choice. Reflecting trends so far in voting among young people in primaries, Obama was the choice of both young men and young women voters, although several respondents expressed admiration for Clinton as the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed said young voters seem to be more involved in this presidential election than during past election cycles, and they cited both the excitement and importance of this election-and the increased role of Internet organizing-as factors in their engagement.

"There are more candidates who we can relate to this year than in past years," said Scott Gluckstern, a senior at the University of Florida.


Editors: Amanda Knowles, Caitlin Lukacs, Joan Soley, Lisa Tanger, Jodi Westrick

Writers: Liz Anderson, Andras Gal, Eun Kang, Casey Labrack, Christina Fernandez-Pereda, Sakina Rangwala, Ariel Olson Surowidjojo, Adina Young

Reporters: Liz Anderson, Cristina Fernandez-Pereda, Caitlin Lukacs, Katherine Gypson, Casey Labrack, Eun Kang, Sakina Rangwala

Survey webmaster: Katharine Jarmul

Graphic: Jessica Kadylak

Researchers: Federica Narancio, Caine O'Rear, Federica Valabrega

Additional Research - The Undergraduate "Reporting" course at American University: Tara Abell, Jessica Arencibia, Cynammon Burns, Charlie Carroll, Lauren Cater, Thomas Feeney, Lyndsey Hall, Heather McAuliffe, Jessica McGarry, Rana Novini, Obaahemaa Nyanin, Shikole Struber, Meredith Veloz, Abigail Wihl, Melinda Wise, Laura Wolz


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