This op-ed of mine was published in the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette on Christmas Day (Dec. 25, 2011), but is not online.
America is watching the Iowa caucuses for clues about how the whole 2012 election will play out. Who will be the nominee? What themes and issues will predominate in the campaign? What new political and strategies will work this time around?
One of the most important questions is how youth will participate. By turning out, they can affect who wins and which issues are discussed, because they have distinctive values and concerns. Their participation also shapes the future of our democracy. A generation that votes and participates while its members are young will remain engaged for decades to come, whereas a generation that is alienated will take but slowly to politics.
In 2008, youth played an important role in the Iowa caucuses, more than tripling their turnout compared to 2004 and opting strongly for the eventual winner, Barack Obama. Four fifths of young Iowa caucus-goers participated on the Democratic side, but young Republican caucus-goers also helped to pick the state’s winner, choosing Governor Mike Huckabee by a substantial margin.
The Iowa caucuses set the tone for the whole season. Youth turnout was strong in the primaries and general election. Young people supported Obama to an unprecedented extent. Not only did they vote, but they set the record for campaign volunteering and were generally enthusiastic and engaged.
Certainly, 2012 could be different. Like older Americans, many young people are discouraged and angry. Recent focus groups conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found Iowa’s young people much less enthusiastic than they were in 2008.
Yet Iowa has a strong and durable tradition of youth participation. The state’s youth turnout rate in general elections always exceeds the national average and is sometimes near the top of the rankings. The same is true of community service and volunteering, in which young Iowans excel.
Although a discouraged national mood may push youth participation down, Iowa’s strong civic traditions should boost turnout if campaigns, politicians, and civic leaders work to engage young people in the election.
The research on youth voting offers some lessons.
- Reach out to young people personally: they respond much better to individualized encouragement and two-way conversations than to mass advertising and news events.
- Keep the message relatively moderate and bipartisan. Of the young Iowans who participated in the 2008 GOP caucus, more considered themselves “moderate” than “very conservative,” and that balance reflects national trends.
- Don’t forget the 17-year-olds, who have a right to participate in Iowa’s caucuses if they will turn 18 by November 2008.
- Finally, give young people serious responsibilities in the campaign—they will perform well and bring their peers with them.
Peter Levine directs CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.