Sunday, November 4, 2007

Young US voters may get scoop in 2008

Young US voters may get scoop in 2008

With a year to go before the 2008 US presidential elections, young Americans are poised to mark their growing engagement in politics with an ambitious online news site.

The creators of, which launches on 4 November, say it will be the first to harness the power of students across the US to follow the campaign.

"We noticed there was a void when it came to national, grassroots, student journalism that really could have an impact on issues of importance," said co-founder Alexander Heffner, 17.

Whether the venture sky-rockets or fizzles, its very existence reflects a social shift that candidates and major parties ignore at their peril.

Namely, America's young voters, traditionally seen as apathetic, are becoming more active voters - and there are more and more of them.

'More involved'

People aged 18-29 will make up 25% of the electorate in 2008, according to the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (Circle), up from 21% in 2006.

For a long time, campaigns have ignored the youth vote - but in 2004 they started to take notice

Kat Barr
Rock the Vote
They may account for a full third of the electorate by 2015, Circle predicts, although not all will register to vote.

Added to this, in the 2004 presidential and 2006 mid-term elections, participation among those aged under 25 - though still lower than that of older voters - rose faster than in the population as a whole.

Put into numbers, this meant 4.3m more under-30 voters turned out in 2004 than in 2000, while 1.6m more under-30s voted in 2006 than in 2002, says Rock the Vote, a non-partisan organisation that aims to educate and mobilise young voters.

Kat Barr, Rock the Vote's director of research and education, says it appears to be a continuing trend.

"We have seen through polling, through volunteerism rates, all kinds of indicators... that 18- to 29-year-olds are far more involved in politics than their older brothers and sisters," she said.

"For a long time, campaigns have ignored the youth vote - but in 2004 they started to take notice and in 2006 we did see some campaigns target youth votes."

Rock the Vote's research suggests that the increased youth vote played into the results in several tight races in 2006, including Democratic senate gains in Montana and Virginia.

Those results flag up another reason why neither party can afford to ignore the youth vote: its apparent shift to the left.

A Pew Research Survey in 2006 found that 58% of young voters identified themselves as Democrats and 36% as Republicans.

A survey of the same demographic in 1991 found that 55% of young voters saw themselves as Republican.


So what are the issues motivating this newly energised young generation?

Rock the Vote polling and focus groups put the Iraq war as young voters' number one concern, followed by economic issues such as the cost of college and healthcare.

Next - and this is where differences can be seen with older age groups, says Ms Barr - come concerns about the environment, global warming and immigration.

Thomas Patterson, of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says the Iraq war played a big part in stirring up the youth vote in 2004 - and could do so again if the Bush administration decides to "stay the course" in Iraq.

Young voters have also warmed to changes in the presidential debate format, with 77% saying they preferred to see questions put by members of the public, as happened in July's video-based YouTube debate, compared to 57% of those aged 65 and older.

Developments such as the use of social networking sites, including Facebook and MySpace, in campaigning have also been embraced by younger voters.

'Moment in history'

These innovations are in the armoury of Scoop08 as it prepares to compete with the mainstream media, said Mr Heffner and co-founder Andrew Mangino, a 20-year-old Yale student.

They plan to use video clips, blogs and podcasts on the site, as well as more conventional reports, to draw in a younger audience.

"There is an increasingly politically engaged generation that is able to network online and to work professionally, academically and socially in this venue," said Mr Heffner.

Among the beats to be awarded to its 300-plus stable of reporters are "rhetoric" - where presidential candidates' campaign speeches will be unpicked - "democracy" and "ethics".

The site also intends to shed light on under-reported issues and the less-known presidential candidates, drawing on its geographically, ethnically and socially diverse team to do so.

Of course, the whole enterprise relies on the commitment of student reporters and editors who will be working for nothing, supported by an advisory board that includes established journalists and former presidential candidate Gary Hart.

Will the young volunteers' energy last through the year to polling day on 4 November 2008?

Mr Mangino is optimistic. "Everyone is just so committed to this," he said. "They will increasingly devote their time just because it is that moment in history where it is possible."


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