It seems like every election season, we are told that the youth will rise up. For the last 30 years, every presidential election has experienced a lower-than-predicted turnout of people under 20. The nation was sure that John Kerry would be swept into the White House by an angry mob of young voters who were tired of the administration of President George W. Bush. Yet four years later, here we are with Bush still in office. Events are unfolding differently this year, and they may help a certain African-American candidate.
Popular culture and political science always combine around election time to make us believe that the cool kids are voting in the millions. Remember ‘Vote or Die’? It was a program meant to build an ‘ideocracy’ pimped by Paris Hilton and whatever name Diddy went by at the time. Before that atrocity, there was ‘Rock the Vote,’ a simpler, less-threatening version that made the same promises. Neither program had a nation-changing impact.
Today, the same assurances are being made about the 2008 presidential elections, but here is the punch line: They might actually be correct. Young voters are flocking to the polls in numbers not seen since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972. This raises two questions. The first is ‘Why?’ and the second is ‘Where are the votes going?’
The answer to both questions is the same. Somehow, in 1961, all the warmest rays of hope were given a bi-racial human vessel to occupy. This is obviously an enormous stretch, but it is essentially what people feel Obama has become. The man’s inspiring speeches and uplifting charisma have done what almost no other candidate in history has done: He got millions of people under 30 to vote and, more importantly, to vote for him.
When one looks at the numbers of young voters, it becomes clear that Obama leaves the competition in an embarrassing wake. In Illinois, kids preferred Obama four-to-one over the next-closest candidate. His edge was two-to-one in Nevada and three-to-one in New Hampshire. Regardless of whether he wins a state’s entire vote, he captures the youth demographic with little to no competition. This is the edge that took Obama from long-shot, inexperienced candidate to frontrunner. Soon, it may take him into office.
Young Americans vote for Obama because he represents change. If Hillary Clinton is elected into office, her four-year term will complete over 20 years of having had either a Bush or Clinton in the White House. Obama is as far from these families as it gets. He is young, vibrant and from a completely different background. He was born in Hawaii and bases his operations outside of the South, something no president has done since Kennedy. Most obviously, he is not a W.A.S.P. Again, this is something not seen since Kennedy, who was the first and only Catholic president. Unfortunately, the diversity of our presidents is limited to the fact that one guy was Catholic 40 years ago. Obama is a step toward racial equality, something that should have happened 200 years ago.
Even Obama’s greatest weakness supports his promise of change. He has only spent three years in the Senate. Our next president may have only participated in the federal system for three years (after having served seven years in the Illinois Senate). To the optimistic voter, this makes him uncorrupted by the political machine. Candidates like Clinton, who has been deeply involved in politics for decades, are spoiled because they have sold a piece of their soul in some kind of Faustian deal. A better analogy for our generation is that such candidates are like Spider-man when he got the black suit. For those who think that a lack of experience equals a bad president, Teddy Roosevelt served as New York governor for one year and vice president for six months before he became one of the most vibrant and successful presidents in history.
As of now, it is Obama’s race to lose. Frankly, there are few ideological differences between Obama and Clinton. The only real contrast is Obama’s ability to get young people to vote. If his youth following continues to grow, then he will become the first president ever to rely almost entirely on a voting group under 30. One can only hope that his promises of change are enacted and that the enthusiasm of youth in politics becomes a permanent fixture in the electoral landscape.
Kevin Pease is a third-year psychology and social behavior major. He can be reached at email@example.com.