Fri, 03 Mar 2000

Nomination race fails to ignite young voters

By Louise Daly

CHICAGO (AFP): This season's seesaw presidential nomination race may not buck the deep-seated apathy among America's young voters, but the votes of those who do turn out could be critical.

Exit polls show that the candidates, including the charismatic Republican contender, Arizona Senator John McCain, have failed to ignite young voters.

The ballots cast by those under 30 have rarely edged above 10 percent of the total vote in the primaries so far, in spite of record turnouts in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

"Young people have been a part of that, but a smaller part than perhaps we would have expected," said Tom Patterson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

And there is nothing to suggest that will change as the primary season moves up a gear this month when a dozen states are up for grabs on Super Tuesday, March 7, Patterson said.

Even in New Hampshire, the Granite state, with its long tradition of independent-minded, politically active voters, only 13 percent of the Democratic vote was cast by teenagers or twenty-somethings.

In the Republican camp, the young vote in what was one of the most hotly contested battles so far was just 10 percent, according to estimates by Voter News Service.

"That fits with the long-term trend of young adults taking less and less interest in campaigns."

"Disproportionately the people dropping out of the electorate has been young Americans," said Patterson, who heads up the Vanishing Voter Project, which tracks public participation in the presidential selection process.

But securing two-thirds of that vote could be critical given the margins between the victors and losers in the primaries so far, he cautioned.

Strikingly, the week after the New Hampshire contest which gave McCain the "bounce" that made the Republican contest a two- horse race, only a third of 18 to 34-year-olds could name McCain as the Republican victor in a poll conducted by the project.

"They aren't paying much attention," Patterson noted, in spite of saturation media coverage.

"Igniting interest among young people is the single biggest challenge facing American politics," said Marvin Kalb, co- director of the project.

"The candidate who works this miracle deserves the presidency," he said.

David Stone, a 27-year-old consultant from Chicago summed up the sense of political alienation felt by many.

"I am kind of turned off by the whole thing," said Stone, who is not sure whether he is eligible to vote in the Illinois primary.

"The whole political process seems like a show. It's heavily scripted. The politicians tell people what they want to hear," he added.

The U.S. youth vote has been on the slide since the 1970s, as young Americans tainted by increasing cynicism about the American political system, have disengaged in larger numbers than their parents did.

The number of 18-24 year-olds heading to the polls declined from 42 percent in 1972 when Richard Nixon secured a second term to about 28.2 percent in 1996 when come-back kid Bill Clinton earned another four years in office.

The rot that started with the Watergate scandal in 1974 spread even further with the scandals of the impeachment-tainted President Bill Clinton era, according to pollster Kim Parker.

"But there also hasn't been a rallying point for this generation," said Parker, a research director at the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C..

Nor should we forget that young Americans are only one faction in what is a generally apathetic set of voters, according to Jeff Manza, assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago.

"The candidates have ignited a normally super-apathetic electorate, and made them a bit less so," he noted.

"But between now and March 7, (Texas Governor George) Bush and (Vice President Al) Gore will have sewn up the nominations for their respective parties."