The Iowa caucuses and the looming New Hampshire primary provide evidence that 2008 will be the year that young voters will play a key role in our political process and election of our next president.
Often derided as apathetic, disinterested, and too busy with other life issues to engage with the democratic process, young voters have visibly exhibited their seriousness and their potential influence over the last week. They spoke through the ballot box and were greeted with results.
Young people participated in Iowa in record numbers, with voters ages 17-29, making up 22% of all caucus voters. The Iowa events last week broke records as 346,000 voters on both sides of the aisles (and many independents) turned out to pick their candidates. The unprecedented turnout was in large part due to a dramatic increase of first time caucus goers, many of them young voters.
What's more, Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate they overwhelmingly supported, received close to 60% of the votes of young Democrats, by far the biggest factor in his "surprise" (to many observers who had not been paying close attention to the trends) Iowa victory. Let's be clear: young voters decided the winner of the Iowa caucuses.
The stunning turnout of younger and newer voters not only helps account for Senator Obama's victory but for Governor Huckabee's victory as well. Senator Obama, as well as Governor Huckabee, have unusual resonance with young voters. They act, talk, and look young (they are both, in fact, the youngest candidates running in their respective parties). They make regular jokes on the stump, they frequent late night talk shows, and they embrace youth popular culture (Obama with Oprah; Huckabee with his electric guitar and Chuck Norris ads). While some of these things may seem superficial, they make young voters think: "Wow. This is someone who seems like they could know what I'm feeling and thinking right now. These people look like they were dealing with my issues not that long ago."
The bitter partisanship, red state/blue state divisions, and negative attacks prevailing in the last decade is all most young people know of American politics, because that's all they have experienced. So it is no surprise that young people have rejected that road. Now that people like Obama and Huckabee are running as agents of change and as outsiders who are "sick of the partisanship and gridlock in Washington," they are inspirational to young voters.
My generation has been much more active and passionate about political and social issues than most older generation experts appreciate. From Darfur to the environment to many other causes, 17-30 year-olds are very engaged. But they have shied away from electoral politics in part because of the poisoned prevailing winds of partisanship. Now that is changing, and young people are both driving that change and responding to it.
Obama chief strategist David Axelrod and later Obama himself acknowledged the role of young people in Iowa. Unlike Howard Dean's campaign in 2004, which excited large numbers of young people, this time young organizers came to Iowa, worked hard and smart, and actually turned out their peers and many others to vote in the caucuses. They are doing the same thing in New Hampshire, which is why Obama started his Saturday jam-packed campaign rally in Nashua by introducing his youth volunteers. This gives young voters another great reward: national recognition for the role they are playing in the political process-something that in large part the media has missed. After his victory Obama's declared, "It's fair to say that some were skeptical," that young voters would turn out, then adding "It's a sign of what's going to happen in the country."
This dramatic youth voter turnout is actually part of a long-term trend. Although the mainstream media seemed disappointed with youth turnout in 2004, it was actually up 11 percent over 2000. And in the 2006 mid-term elections, the youth vote increased dramatically over the comparable 2002 mid-terms.
It is, of course, too early to tell if young voters will sustain the enthusiasm and momentum they exhibited in Iowa throughout the rest of this campaign, but it's looking good so far. Young voters have the most at stake in this election. It is we who have the longest to live with the consequences of decisions ranging from whether to stay or withdraw from Iraq to how to respond to global climate change to how to invest in our future to how to live in a globalized world.
From all my travels around the country in the course of making and showing my film (18 in '08), I think young people know that 2008 is the year when they will make history. In Iowa, they already have.
David D. Burstein is the director and producer of the documentary film, 18 in '08. For more information and resources on young voters and the 2008 election campaign visit: www.18in08.com
Follow David D. Burstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidburstein