Nabil Alama didn't vote last week.
He's 19. He's working two jobs. He's got a baby on the way.
He's part of that 18-to-29-year-old voting bloc that "Rock the Vote," "Vote for Change," Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Russell Simmons and Bruce Springsteen were so desperately after.
"It's not that I don't care about the election," says Alama, who lives in a group house in Vienna and has been working at Tysons Corner since he was 17. He heard the get-out-the-vote radio commercials on 93.9 FM. He knew about the "Vote or Die!" campaign. He read the fliers the college kids were passing around whenever he rode the Metro.
Standing in front of the Cingular Wireless kiosk on the first floor of Tysons Corner, sipping his venti caramel macchiato, the lanky man with droopy eyes has too much on his plate. He works at least 40 hours a week at the Cingular kiosk and another 18 hours a week at Illuminations, the home decor and candle shop only a few feet away. His girlfriend is three months pregnant, and he's worried about how he's going to get her insurance.
"I should have voted," he shrugs, "but I've got a lot to do."
It's those like Alama who have been the target of much recrimination and frustration since last Tuesday. This was, after all, supposed to be the year for the young voter, the exclamation point election, a la Combs's "Vote or Die!"
"Yeah, we rocked the vote all right," quips Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist himself. "Those little bastards betrayed us again."
That's the jeering narrative this past week, the knock against potential voters such as Alama, who just didn't find the time to make it to the polls. But data from the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and many of the voter registration activists say the finger-pointing isn't fair. Since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1972, the voting trend for those under the age of 30 has continually spiraled downward, the University of Maryland-based CIRCLE says.
Until last Tuesday.
The 2004 presidential race, as far as the youth vote was concerned, was a landmark election, bringing out nearly 21 million voters under the age of 30 to the polls, according to Peter Levine, CIRCLE's deputy director.
"This is a big, big gain," adds Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard University. "The Vanishing Voter," his most recent book, examines the causes and consequences of declining voter participation. "For that age group, it's the biggest turnout, in raw numbers, since 1972."
Here's where it gets confusing: Because overall turnout was high, the percent of the youth vote was almost the same as 2000. But percentages can hide as much as they reveal. In figures used by CIRCLE, the youth vote in 2000 made up 16.4 percent of the total, translating to about 16.2 million votes. In 2004, the the youth vote made up 18.4 percent, translating to about 20.9 million votes. That's a jump of 4.6 million, says CIRCLE, and a jump in overall turnout, too. More than 51 percent of citizens ages 18 to 29 voted. In 2000, it was 42.3 percent.
"I think people were misled by looking at the percentages of the electorate," continues Patterson, who, like hip-hop impresarios P. Diddy (Citizen Change) and Russell Simmons (Hip-Hop Action Summit Network), was puzzled by the mostly negative press about youth voter turnout.
"Is it a conspiracy?" P. Diddy asks -- "half-jokingly," he says. "That increase should have been applauded, you know what I mean? We got knocked down so much for being irresponsible, for people trying to say that this generation is irresponsible, that this generation doesn't care, that this generation isn't interested in things that are serious. Then, something like this happens -- 4 million or so more votes, like bam! -- and what are folks saying? Young black and Latino kids are voting for the first time, and what are folks saying? I'm not being defensive. I know the truth.
"I'm just calling it as it is."
"I was baffled," says Simmons, who's quick to point out that his 26 hip-hop summits, attended by marquee names such as Kanye West and 50 Cent, to name just two, drew an "estimated 10,000 kids." He goes on: "We made an effort to turn around what had been a trend for young people not to be a part of the process. The fact is, we reversed the trend."
So just what exactly happened?
Explains Patterson, "Some people -- the media in general, the pundits on TV -- have a story line embedded in their minds: That the young people were going to deliver this election to Kerry. Since he didn't win, they reason backwards: Young people must not have turned out in big numbers."
In fact, the youth vote was the only age group the Democratic candidate won -- John Kerry got 54 percent, compared with Bush's 44 percent. (In 2000, Al Gore got 48 percent, Bush 46 percent.) For Kerry, the youth vote was key in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, CIRCLE says. But there's no mistaking that the youth vote was far more divided than some had predicted.
Expectations were high because of the massive get-out-the-vote efforts. MTV's Choose or Lose campaign, for example, had a specific goal in mind: to mobilize 20 million young voters. This year, especially in the past three months, it was impossible to watch MTV -- or MTV2, Spike TV and The N -- without seeing an election-related public service announcement.
"This was an issue-heavy election," says Ian Rowe, who oversaw the Choose or Lose campaign. "The war in Iraq, the war with terror, the increasing price of college education are issues of concern for young people."
However, there's a largely ignored educational divide among young voters, says Patterson of Harvard. Currently, only one-third of 18-to-29-year-olds are in college or have gone to college, and that one-third is more likely to vote. "That's been a consistent voting pattern," he says.
Walk onto any college campus. The stickers! The posters! You can still find a lot of that at George Washington University the hottest campus for political junkies, according to the 2005 Kaplan/Newsweek "How to Get into College" guide.
In the Marvin Center, where the main cafeteria is located, a group of five freshmen -- two Republicans, two Democrats, one too young to vote -- was still chattering about the election as they snacked on Wendy's and Jamba Juice. It's been a frustrating, entertaining, argumentative and long three months. The five, who all live on the Mount Vernon campus, watched the three debates together. "Maybe that wasn't such a good idea," says one. Last Tuesday, about 9 p.m., they ordered three pizzas and watched the election returns. They made it to bed about five hours later.
The Republicans, Blade Smith of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Amy Hocraffer of Rochester, Minn., went to bed thinking Bush had won; the Democrats, Megan Royden of Columbia and Andre Lindsey of the District, weren't so sure; the 17-year-old, Amanda Beltran, a Democrat from Brooklyn, N.Y., was pulling for Kerry.
For that matter, so was Alama.