Conventional wisdom suggests young Americans are too busy with their iPods, their schoolwork and each other to care much about who becomes the next President of the United States. Yet when a survey conducted by the music television network MTV, the New York Times newspaper and CBS asked 659 randomly selected young Americans what they thought of their own political clout, 77 percent said their generation would influence the outcome of the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
The poll of American youth between the ages of 17 and 29 was designed to gauge their political and social attitudes and to help predict what impact they might have on the 2008 presidential campaign.
It found today's youth to be more politically engaged than in recent election seasons. Fifty-eight percent said they are paying attention to the presidential campaign, whereas only 35 percent said so during the 2004 campaign. And only half of those polled in 2004 and 2006 felt they were in the midst of one of the most important election seasons of their lives. Today, two thirds do.
"We see in cycle-over-cycle, their engagement into politics and into voting and into issues just keeps ratcheting up there as these stakes get so much higher," says Matt Catapano, the MTV researcher who helped design the study.
American youth also appear to be relatively well informed. "The Internet is being used as an exploratory medium and they are tapping into that," says Michael Greco, MTV's senior vice president for research and planning. He says one third of respondents had visited candidates' websites, taking advantage of "the abundance of information that is available to them" on-line.
Some survey planners caution that young people might know the candidates, not because they love politics so much, but because they love cyber-surfing. MTV's Matt Catapano says "What we hear a lot is kids saying 'Hey, I'm not a very political person, but I was interested in this guy Obama that I heard about. So I spent about an hour and half cruising "Myspace" and "Facebook" and found out about him and other candidates there.'"
Also, adds Catapano, exploring a candidates Website is a no-pressure, no-commitment way to learn what they stand for "and not feel like? they are going to be contacting you and hounding you. It's very anonymous."
When the survey asked respondents to rank their issues of concern, the war in Iraq, education and the economy topped the list. Concerns about education and the economy are often connected for college students, especially in June when the survey was conducted. It's a time when most students want summer jobs. Graduating students also want a healthy labor market.
The poll also found that Americans aged 17-29 differ from the overall adult population on certain key policy issues. Sixty-two percent of the youth surveyed favor universal health care for all Americans, while only 47 percent of American adults overall do. Forty-four percent of those polled said that gay couples should be allowed to marry, while only 28 percent of adults nationwide favor gay marriage.
What those numbers mean however is open to interpretation. In its own analysis, the New York Times said they mean that young people are "leaning left" of the general population, and surmised that today's youth might favor liberal and Democratic, over conservative and Republican, policy positions.
However, 51 percent of the youth polled also believed that the U.S. war in Iraq would succeed. While that number may partly reflect the optimism of youth, it is also a more conservative stance at this time.
MTV vice president Mike Greco says that there is really no paradox. According to him, today's youth simply aren't playing traditional either-or politics. For them, says Greco, it's "this and that."
"I think overall what you are seeing among young people, is a breakdown of [political] party," he says. "They customize things that fit into their own life. Whether that's sexual preference or diversity with [Barack] Obama, an African American being president. They don't necessarily have to fit into a left-right agenda."
Greco suggests that young Americans are taking the same approach to the issues and candidates of the 2008 presidential campaign as they do surfing the Internet or playing network video games: they look for the mix that captures their interest, and they make it their own.