Many pollsters say the U.S. presidential primary elections have turned out younger voters in record numbers. A large majority of them support Democratic Party presidential contender Barack Obama. What has energized the youth vote and why are most young adults supporting Senator Obama?
When Caroline Kennedy threw her support behind Illinois Senator Barack Obama for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, she said her three teenage children made her realize that Obama was the president the country needed. She was among the first of an increasing number of prominent Democrats who back Senator Obama and claim their children prompted them to endorse him.
But many young Americans are not just telling parents to support their favorite presidential contender, they are voting in record numbers in this year's Democratic primary elections. According to a recent Pew Research Center public opinion study, in 18 Democratic primary contests held earlier this year, young adults accounted for 14 percent of the total vote, up from nine percent in 2004.
Pew polling over the past few years has shown that young voters constitute an important constituency for the Democratic party. A majority of registered voters ages 18-to-29 say they are Democrats or lean toward the Party, while about a third identify with the Republican Party.
A Galvanizing Issue
Harvard University's election analyst Thomas Patterson says young voters have been mostly mobilized by their opposition to the Iraq war. It began, he notes, during the Democratic primaries in 2003, when many young people rallied around presidential contender, Howard Dean. "We forget now that in the summer of 2003 that Howard Dean rocketed upward in the polls and had a lot of youthful volunteers and his message was anti-Iraq. You go back to 1992, 1996 and 2000, the youth were barely there. Barely more than a third of them participated. In 2004 it was nearly 50 percent. That's a huge turnaround," says Patterson. "And when you look at young people and what was on their minds, Iraq was the upper most issue."
Professor Patterson says nearly five million more young adults voted in 2004 than in 2000. He adds that in the current Democratic primaries, a majority of the youth voters are supporting Senator Barack Obama, who has been a long-time opponent of the war in Iraq. "Since the start of this campaign in early 2007, I think what we've seen is a second source of energy for young voters and that's the Obama campaign. They were attracted to him in the first instance by his early opposition to the war in Iraq. At the same time, he happened to have the kind of personality, the kind of message that appealed to them," says Patterson.
"Part of it is generational identification," says William Galston, an expert in governance at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Many of today's young people have grown up in a multiracial, multiethnic context in part because of the enormous surge of immigration in recent decades. Senator Obama's internationalism is consistent with that. In addition, Senator Obama believes that people of good will with different views can get together around the table and solve problems. There are a lot of young Americans, who would like to believe that's true."
A Fountain of Youth
The youth surge is not a new phenomenon, say other analysts. Curtis Gans, Director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, points out that every generation of Americans produced its idealism and its hope. "Young people were moved and came out for John F. Kennedy. A different group went into the civil rights movement. A different group went into the anti-war movement [during the Vietnam War era]. A different group was moved by Ronald Reagan. They were moved briefly by [Bill] Clinton and [Al] Gore and [Ross] Perot," says Gans. "They were moved in large numbers to oppose George [W.] Bush and support John Kerry in 2004. They are looking for in each case a transforming figure in American politics, something that is different."
Scott Keeter, public opinion survey expert with the Washington-based Pew Research Center, says young people in America today are much more diverse and more liberal than in the past. "They are very tolerant of interracial dating. They don't have hang-ups about gay marriage. They are welcoming to immigrants, more so than other age groups," says Keeter. "All of this, I think, makes them very distinctive and points to the fact that they are less supportive of the Republican Party, which is much more the socially conservative party in the U.S."
The Republican Party's presidential contender, John McCain, offers a solemn election message, says political scientist William Galston. "McCain speaks an older political language. It's the language of duty and obligation and responsibility, rather than choice and liberty. He is calling the citizens of the United States to a kind of citizenship that they haven't been urged to embrace for decades. And it remains to be seen just how potent that appeal will be."
Some election analysts, including Curtis Gans, caution that the energy and enthusiasm of young voters could still fizzle out. "Whether it can be sustained will really depend on whether Obama wins the nomination, whether he wins the Presidency and whether to some extent, when he is in the Presidency, he can fulfill some of the hopes and continue with eloquence and transparency."
Gans adds that young people are likely to stay involved in politics as long as they feel they are a part of something larger than themselves.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.