In an off-year election that generates ho hum enthusiasm even amongst politically aware adults, the idea of youngsters caring about legislative races seems far-fetched.
The common wisdom is that young people are, by and large, politically apathetic. If it’s hard to get a good youth turnout for a presidential election, then the chances of getting them out for state legislative races are virtually non-existent. But while many young people are too busy sending text messages to pick a candidate, campaigns also depend on young, true-believer volunteers and staffers to get out the vote.
Matt Mowers is one of those true-believers. The 18-year-old Rutgers freshman is the political director for Gerald Cardinale’s re-election campaign in the 39th district.
“It’s tough to get a lot of people to care about legislative races in general,” said Mowers, who estimated that total turnout for next month’s legislative races would be about 32%.
Mowers isn’t a typical 18-year-old. He’s been volunteering for political campaigns since he was 13, going door-to-door for the 18th district Republican slate in 2003. After volunteering with several campaigns and running the East Brunswick Teenage Republicans during the last few years, he’s worked his way up to a paid managerial position.
“When I interviewed Matt I got the impression that he started this before he was born,” said Cardinale, who said he’s always had a lot of young people in both his legislative and campaign operations. “One of the secrets of keeping the legislative office functioning within the allowances we have as staff is we get a lot of young people to serve as interns…. It’s not a new phenomenon.” But Mowers thinks that his peers can provide votes in addition to manpower. To him, the young people who aren’t political junkies like him just need a reason to go out and vote. He thinks he can give them one: the recent 7.8% tuition hike at Rutgers.
“You hear form all the campaigns how much they want to get the youth involved. The fact is the youth want to get involved, it’s just a matter of trying to relate to them on the issues,” said Mowers. “Older people are tired of taxes, younger people are tired of higher tuition rates. It’s really hitting young and old in the pocket because Democrats control Trenton… there is a lot of energy going out theee in the younger community.”
Conor Rogers, an 18-year-old senior at Bergen Catholic High School, is also throwing the weight of the Bergen County Teenage Republican Association, which he co-chairs, behind the Cardinale campaign. The organization, which has about 50 members, is also supporting the Bergen County Republican Freeholder campaigns and the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign.
Rogers has been getting 15 to 20 high school students at a time to work the phones on behalf of their candidates. He estimates that he puts in three hour nights for four days each week, plus weekends, while most of the club’s members put in one or two nights a week.
It hasn’t been too difficult to get kids to work the phones for local races, Rogers said.
“I think the problem is that younger people aren’t informed. Once they get the info and they’re interested in it, they become active,” said Rogers, whose high school is about as reliably Republican as the state of Utah. In a 2004 mock presidential election, Bush beat Kerry 70-30, Rogers estimates. But, Rogers admits, as many of half of his kids aren’t doing it so much because they care about politics as they care about putting something interesting on their college applications.
Over at Princeton, 20-year-old math major Scott Weingart, a Hopewell native, has taken it upon himself to organize students on behalf of the 12th district Democrats, away from the non-competitive 15th district, where Princeton sits.
Even the politically inclined students at Princeton usually have next to no idea who’s running in local legislative races, said Weingart. But he’s managed to convince several students, mostly out-of-staters, to campaign on behalf of a ticket headed by State Senator Ellen Karcher, whose name may resonate in Trenton political circles but meets deaf ears among Princeton’s mostly out-of-state students.
While Weingart says most Princeton students lead busy lives, they have more time than, say, working parents.
“We have the most energy,” said Weingart. “We have tons of work… But it is fair to say that we have more time than most people do.”
Campaigns are also dependent on politically active youngsters for their technological expertise. Eric Sedler, 22, runs the Republican blog Redjersey.net with 22-year-old Rutgers law student Eric Pasternack. Juan Melli, the founder of RedJersey’s liberal counterpart, BlueJersey.com, is 26.
Sedler, a junior at Monmouth University, volunteers for Bill Baroni’s campaign in the 14th district. But he can’t think of many other students who share his enthusiasm.
“Only a few kids here probably realize that there’s an election this year,” said Sedler.
According to David P. Rebovich, Managing Director of the Rider Institute Politics, college students face hurdles to local political involvement. Unlisted college students aren’t likely to get calls from campaigns, while in New Jersey few commercials for legislative races make it onto the expensive New York and Philadelphia television markets. Not to mention thta many students have to vote via absentee ballot.
“On our campus, we’re having a debate between the college Democrats and Republicans,” said Rebovich. “To get kids to go, we have to provide incentives, like extra credit.”