Teen angst and presidential politics

Seventeen-year-old Dave Landstrom lives in Flemington, the county seat of one of New Jersey’s most Republican leaning counties. He was a 10-year-old when George W. Bush was elected President, and he turns 18 this October 26th, making him eligible to vote on Election Day in November.

Dave has got a lot going on in his life–school, getting ready for college, nurturing a singing career, and then of course, there are girls. He’s hectic but he is absolutely clear about two things–that he will exercise his right to vote in November and that he really wants to vote for Barack Obama.

“I know each candidates’ position on health care and on most of the other issues. Without question, I think Obama is the strongest candidate”, Dave said proudly. As a labor leader, I’m excited and impressed just to hear 17-year olds talk about health care as an issue.

Apparently, Dave is not alone in his focus on health care. According to a recent poll reported in Time magazine, the top three issues that 18-to-29 year olds ‘worry a great deal about’ are the ability to afford health care (62%), followed by the way the Iraq war is being conducted (59%) and the ability to find a stable, well-paying job (58%).*

Like a growing number of young people, Dave is both passionate and knowledgeable about the Presidential candidates and the progress of the primary race. However, he is not going to blindly vote for any Democrat for President. He told me that if Hillary Clinton is the ultimate Democratic nominee, he intends to vote for John McCain (if he’s the Republican choice of course). Even though Dave is against the war in Iraq, which McCain supports, he believes that McCain has been “honest” and “consistent” on the war issue, while Clinton has not.

That kind of political independence seems to be emblematic of this Presidential race. Passions and opinions are strong and party loyalty is weak.

Extraordinarily, since November 2007, more than 48,500 additional New Jersey voters have been registered most of which are unaffiliated with any political party. While New Jersey doesn’t keep those records by age, all of the primary elections thus far this year have evidenced that voter registration amongst young people went way up and young voters turned out in record numbers (www.newvotersproject.org).

One thing that is clear, young voters are engaged in a way we have not seen in decades. More than 74% of 18-to-29 year old are paying attention to the presidential campaigns this year, compared to only 42% in 2004 and a mere 13% in 2000.* While Barack Obama’s youthful energy and talk of changing the dynamics of political gridlock are partly responsible for the new trend, Clinton and McCain seem to be inspiring their own share of young voters also but for other reasons.

The trend is one of energized young voters, hungry for a different kind of politics, becoming an important force in the national political discussion. Dave echoed that sentiment when he said, “All of my friends and all of their friends are motivated to have a change from the Bush regime and to have a voice. We feel like we can make a difference and we’re ready to stand up and take our places in political history.”

*Time Magazine Poll conducted Jan. 18-21 among 503 randomly selected Americans from 18-29 years old by SRBI Public Affairs. Full results can be found at http://www.srbi.com.

Teen angst and presidential politics