Vincent Valdmanis

Chasing the Youth Vote

Clockwise from top left:
Presidential hopefuls
Gephardt, Dean,
Lieberman, and Kerry.

On the third floor of the anonymous office park housing Howard Dean's campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, an earnest literature and history major from Alabama greets visitors in bare feet. Nearby, a 17-year-old from Connecticut chats with potential high school supporters on the telephone. An Amherst student steps off the elevator in hiking boots showing signs of a recent hike and disappears into rows of cubicles. This is the hub of "Generation Dean," a network of teenage and 20-something Dean supporters the campaign is relying on to reach young voters.

Conventional wisdom expects little political participation from the Nintendo Generation, known to demographers as the "New Millenials." Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds has steadily declined from 50 percent in 1972 to 32 percent in the last presidential election [i]. Yet census figures and studies show this age group to be rapidly challenging the Baby Boomers in size [ii], and the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) recently released a study suggesting Millennials could replace soccer moms as the swing vote in the 2004 presidential race. 60 percent of the students IOP surveyed planned to vote in the upcoming election.

But how seriously are the Democratic presidential candidates taking Millenials? We found the answer to be as expected: not very. Youth outreach efforts were routine and shallow. As evidence of being hip to youth, John Kerry's campaign pointed to the endorsement of electronic musician Moby (who likes Dean but thinks Kerry is more elect-able). Jano Cabrera, the 29-year-old spokesperson for the Joseph Lieberman campaign, made the usual noises on the subject. "People often say that the life blood of politics is youth," he said. "Never is this more true than on a presidential campaign."

In a literal sense, Cabrera is right. Campaigns rely on the labor of unpaid interns to man telephones, canvass neighborhoods, and stamp envelopes. Every campaign office we visited looked like a student union building, but instances of these young armies canvassing voters their own age were selective and few.

Youth outreach efforts were routine and shallow... A possible exception in this election is the Generation Dean venture.

A possible exception in this election is the Generation Dean venture. Ginny Hunt and Michael Whitney, the project's young coordinators, said over 250 college chapters have been founded in every state except Nevada, and estimates of student "contacts" with the Dean campaign -- from chapter heads to donors -- is upwards of 4,000.

No other campaign we spoke with had such concrete information on the response to their outreach programs, and was only able to assure us that such programs were actually in place. Kerry has a few chapters in Massachusetts left over from his last bid for senator, and a fall semester speaker tour featuring his son is in the works. And even though Dennis Kucinich said to us, "the spirit of my campaign connects with the spirit of young people -- my efforts for peace and protecting the environment show that I'm in tune with organizing on campuses," there is no evidence that any campus organizers are in tune with him.

So why the attention from cell-phone toting teenagers in a governor from a small state full of dairy farms and hippies? It's quite simple. "No one talked to them before," said Whitney, a student at American University. Dean's self-described persona as the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" resonated in the minds of many young voters we met as more truthful. "The real power to change this country is in your hands, not mine," Dean said at a recent rally in New Hampshire.

Whitney and Hunt were initially surprised as the response to Dean's message from their target audience "took off." They have even solicited significant campaign donations from young voters, though at the time of writing exact figures were still being calculated.

All of the young supporters at Dean events we spoke with felt Dean's message genuinely reflected a long-needed confrontational attitude for Democrats. "He's as pissed off as I am," said Hemant Joshi, a 21-year-old Dartmouth student. Dick Gephardt's campaign, by contrast, felt like a Lutheran church service. Slow, formal, and a little tired, his campaign seemed to be going through the motions, especially at energizing the youth vote. While interns stood idly behind him or did random odds and ends at a stop in New Hampshire, Gephardt told us what he would do for young people. His ideas were admirable: Teacher Corps, a five-year teacher training and job placement program, a proposal for universal health care, and a renewable energy initiative. But listening to it all felt like hearing your grandfather tell a bedtime story. Greg Klein, another Dartmouth student, said the same of Kerry. By chance he saw the senator give a stump speech in Portsmouth, with only about a 10-person audience. Although the New Hampshire primary is over six months away, Dean is already attracting much larger numbers.

It is worth noting that in the first presidential election after Grutter vs. Bollinger, the landmark Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, the young staff of the campaigns could appear in the catalog of Abercrombie & Fitch (currently embroiled in a racial discrimination lawsuit).

What Generation Dean has figured out is that young people want to feel powerful. Young progressives are disgusted with Bush, and at this stage of the game, with no campaign announcement from Ralph Nader or any other third-party candidate, the Democratic Party is the only alternative. Dean, sensing the discontent of young partisans, said in one campaign speech, "If you want young people to vote in this country, we had better stand for something, because that is why they're not voting."

There is no question Dean has convinced both younger and older voters alike that he stands for "something." Although it is a misconception that Dean is the only Democratic candidate to denounce the war from the get-go -- Florida Senator Bob Graham and Kucinich both voted against the war last October, plus Reverend Al Sharpton and Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun have also never supported Bush's vision of American empire -- the former governor has been most effective at capitalizing on this position. His campaign has been very successful at painting Dean as rebellious and iconoclastic, a man willing to confront the Republican agenda head-on. His 11 years as Vermont governor has given him a platform to take executive credit for progressive policies, whereas the other Democratic candidates are lost in a sea of congressional politics, or, like Sharpton, have long operated on the fringes.

Dean has galvanized young voters not only with his stance on the war, but with his support in Vermont of civil unions for gay couples, universal health care for children, and progressive educational policies. Polls show that Millenials, although fiscally conservative, have a progressive social streak in them [iii]. So does Dean, who has an undeniably pro-business record in Vermont, and makes balancing the budget his top priority.

But Generation Dean doesn't simply repeat the mantra of the candidate's positions; the organization circulates petitions demanding the Bush administration return the money it slashed from Teach for America. Young voters are not just a passive audience for campaign speeches, but enlisted as community organizers and fighters in the crusade against the Republican Dark Side. "We are actually empowering students," said Generation Dean coordinator Hunt.

Yet for all this fire breathing, Dean's interns displayed a creepy inclination to tow the party line. No one would -- or could -- speak to us without a chaperone from the press office present. This is standard procedure for a presidential campaign circa 2003, but represents a fundamental contradiction for young progressives with anti-authoritarian ideals. At John Kerry's Boston office, a senior intern awkwardly avoided giving as mundane a statistic as how many interns worked in the office, even as a bulletin board with their Polaroids stood behind him.

What those Polaroids and our visits to several campaign offices revealed was the degree to which white, middle-class college students dominate campaigns. Though campaign operations in Vermont and New Hampshire will inevitably reflect the overwhelmingly white population around them, it is worth noting that in the first presidential election after Grutter vs. Bollinger, the landmark Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, the young staff of the campaigns could appear in the catalog of Abercrombie & Fitch (currently embroiled in a racial discrimination lawsuit).

Presidential candidates do not yet employ a racially diverse group -- blacks and Hispanics were entirely absent -- and have not yet successfully reshaped issues to appeal to a broader set of identities. For candidates to assume that the youth vote is one big homogenous demographic is a mistake. Really the only thing these voters have in common is age. Over the last 25 years, the percentage of young citizens who are white has dropped from 88% to 65% [ii]. With youth of color comprising over a third of the youth vote, outreaching to these populations is crucial.

In addition to racial diversity, there is also the issue of education levels. According to the editors of The New Strategist, which publishes demographic studies "aimed to answer your questions about American consumers," those without higher education continue to be disproportionately non-white. Unfortunately, most campaigns are generally targeted at college students, who are perceived as likelier to vote. As a result, young people not enrolled in college remain, for the most part, out of the loop. Even Generation Dean, which consciously changed its name from Students for Dean in an effort to reach a larger demographic, seems to be doing most of its youth outreach on college campuses.

Even the Dean campaign, which has benefited most from the anti-war position, has made no special attempt at courting the anti-globalization coalition.

Observing the young people at work for the campaigns revealed another interesting detail. Very few had experience with political activism before, except for a few who had volunteered for their local representatives. What you wouldn't know from talking to most of the college-aged volunteers is that politics exist outside of the election cycle. Had Dean interns been anti-war activists? Had Kerry volunteers organized to vocally critique American foreign policy? Had Gephardt helpers taken up environmental causes? No.

One of the largest and most underreported phenomena of recent political activism has been the so-called "anti-globalization" movement, something that seems to have passed by the Democrats almost entirely unnoticed. An active coalition of young people has sprung up around free trade, the environment, racial justice, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While many in this coalition first became visible to the mainstream during the Seattle demonstrations of 1999, they have consistently turned out in numbers as high as 500,000 to protest the Bush administration's foreign policy in cities from San Francisco to New York.

We found the Democratic campaigns were not seeking the help of this constituency. Perhaps it's because this part of the political spectrum operates far enough outside of the mainstream that campaign youth coordinators are simply unaware of it. Generation Dean has found students to be most interested in civil liberties, the environment, and education; Youth Vote, a voter outreach organization, also surveyed students and found terrorism, jobs, and crime as the most important issues. Problems surrounding American imperialism and corporate greed just don't seem to come up.

Even the Dean campaign, which has benefited most from the anti-war position, has made no special attempt at courting the anti-globalization coalition. But it would be one-sided to blame the campaigns entirely for not seeking out the more radical members of liberal Millenials. Many anarchists and youth who are against globalization -- who challenge the notion of executive power in the first place--are simply not interested in Democratic candidates whom they see as Republican copycats. While radical young conservatives were instrumental in getting Bush into the White House and have been effective in pulling the mainstream of the Republican party to the right, the anti-corporate left has abandoned the Democratic party rather than attempt to remake it in their image.

The Democrats seem to realize a need to reconnect with their base. In the suffering mill town of Berlin, New Hampshire, Gephardt warned at a rainy day backyard barbeque that his party will get nowhere by being "Bush-lite." Kerry and Dean have repeated this theme, as well.

Perhaps it is having some effect; at the opening of Dean's branch office in Lebanon, New Hampshire, one Millennial in tight jeans and a studded belt, just changed from a shirt and tie for the ceremony, told us how his admiration of Dean's antiwar stance inspired him to organize punk rock fundraisers for the governor. "If you are going to bitch about something at protests," 16-year-old James McHugh said, "then you better do something about it."

Rafi Rom and Vincent Valdmanis graduated from Bard College this May.

[i] A study conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement

[ii] "Youth Demographics," The Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), See also

[iii] IOP,, 5-6

Happy Holidays!