Experts say young voters may elect next president

September 09, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- There are a number of differences between this year's Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, one being age. If John McCain wins the presidential election, he would be 72 when he takes over the Oval Office, while Barack Obama would be 47. But, like other varying traits between the two, age shouldn't matter. But will it?

According to Matthew Woessner, associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State Harrisburg, it's very likely it will. Being able to relate to a candidate is important, and age plays a big part in that.

"I'm a conservative like McCain but I don't know that there's much appeal about him to the young," Woessner said. "Obama has a rock star personality and is good at speaking idealistically. That's not to say McCain won't get any of the youth vote, but Obama has more advantages."

He did note, however, that every time the Democrats make fun of John McCain's age, it's a little self-defeating. Citizens around McCain's age have a higher voter turnout, and the American population, Woessner said, is living longer and having fewer children.

Young people, Woessner said, could have a great impact on Obama's chances to get into the White House, but the Penn State professor doesn't think they'll show up at the polls on Election Day. Constance Flanagan, professor of youth civic development in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education at Penn State, has a different take on the situation and thinks that for this particular election, the youth vote could make a huge impact.

Young voters, who are usually viewed as those between the ages of 18 and 25, sometimes up to age 30, are seen historically as eligible voters who vote in lower numbers than their elders. Even so, Flanagan said Obama's use of technology has really managed to reach out to younger generations in ways previous presidential candidates have not. She also said there has been a gradual increase in youth voting in the 2004 presidential election and the 2006 Senate election.

Both candidates are trying new campaign venues also by attending more widespread events.

"When people go to NAACP meetings they are clearly reaching out," she said. "There are examples of both candidates doing that. If you look at 18- to 25-year-olds versus people in their 50s and up, there are more likely to be people of color, new immigrants or first-generation citizens among young people. So those demographics are different."

Despite this, Woessner pointed out that young people aren't usually as interested in voting because they aren't as focused on issues that aren't likely to affect them yet, such as property taxes, education (because they don't have children in school) and Social Security. But, if the country were to reinstate the draft, he thinks young people would show up at the polls in droves.

He also mentioned that young voters may not be voting because they are more mobile, and moving requires a change of voter registration. Plus, those in this age group just recently became eligible to vote -- if they're not already registered, they can't just show up on Election Day. Older voters may not have voted in the last election but they're still more likely to be registered.

Twenty-year-old Jason Klug of Pittsburgh is trying to make it easier for his generation to get to the polls on Nov. 4. He is a junior public relations major at Penn State and is part of a nonpartisan student-led organization that encourages voter turnout among Penn State students. The group includes members of the College Republicans, College Libertarians, University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) and Students for Barack Obama, among other campus clubs. The goal is to register thousands of new voters, regardless of their political affiliation. Group members will spend as much time as they can leading up to Oct. 6 -- the deadline to register to vote in the 2008 presidential election -- handing out registration forms to Penn State students.

"We're going to send the applications in ourselves. We're trying to remove any barriers that would keep people from voting by actually putting the applications in their hands," Klug said. "Once a person is registered, the more likely it is he or she will vote."

Despite the fact that a lot of young people aren't voting, Klug said he comes from a family that's politically involved. He is driven to be involved himself because he wholeheartedly agrees that the people should choose who will lead the country. He said if his candidate wins -- but by a low voter turnout -- it's not a good statement for democracy.

"I feel like the decision of who the next president is should be decided by as many different people as possible," he said.

Klug admits he has found students who are apathetic about the election, but said there is a lot of that sentiment in the general population as well. He said the state of the economy and high gas prices are affecting young people who aren't making much money to begin with, while the war is a huge issue for his generation. He thinks this election is one in which young voters can finally take an interest.

  • Evan Miller, clerk of elections, directs a voter to the correct polling place during the spring priamries earlier this year.

    IMAGE: Greg Grieco

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010