TCS Daily

The Young and the Restless

By Alex Standish - November 18, 2004 12:00 AM

On November 2nd young people turned out to vote in record numbers relative to previous years. Some 4.6 million more under-30s voted than in 2000, increasing the percentage voting from 42 to 51 per cent (1). This total of nearly 21 million surpassed the previous high in 1992 reversing a downward trend since voting was extended down to 18-year-olds in 1972. Some commentators have heralded this as an 'historic' achievement and a testimony to the hard work of the various campaigns to encourage young people to vote.

Not surprisingly the various rock the vote campaigns are giving themselves a pat on the back. Michael Ross of MSNBC suggested that young people are "sending a signal that, just maybe, political complacency for those voters is a thing of the past" (2).

Others have pointed to the increase in young people voting Democrat as significant, making them the only age group to vote against Bush. Indeed, the 54-44 per cent vote for Kerry is significantly different from the 48-46 split for Al Gore in 2000. Michael Moore, who participated in many youth rallies as part of his own personal anti-Bush campaign, applauds: "Congratulations, 18 to 29- year-olds -- you rocked" (3). Not patronizing at all!

Yet upon closer inspection the rise in the youth vote is not so impressive after all. In fact, it may reveal some very worrying trends.

Young people did not have as large an impact on the election as expected. After millions of dollars were spent on all the campaigns, advertising, concerts, airtime and so forth, their total share of the vote remained at 17 per cent. Why? Because voting was up across the board, and with young people making up a smaller proportion of the vote, the nine percent increase was needed just to keep them at 17 per cent of the total vote.

I was aware from discussing the election with my undergraduate geography students (some three hundred of them) at Rutgers University that there was a lot of interest in the election among young people, so I asked my class their reasons for voting. Many students seemed to be taken in by the election discussion, arguing that this was an historic election, that it was their duty to vote or that because it was close last time they realized that every vote mattered. Beyond the standard answers there was a fixation on the leadership qualities of the presidential candidates. In particular there was a strong anti-Bush sentiment. Some students claimed that it was their "moral duty to get Bush out of office". Others were determined not to let John Kerry become the next president because he is a "Wimp". When I quizzed them further about which issues were important to them, many felt that Bush was to blame for America's negative PR in the world and generally were not in agreement with the war in Iraq. Others felt that Kerry would not be a strong enough leader for the War on Terror. Beyond this, students knew little about the differences between the candidates nor had any real grasp of how the election result would change the political face of America. This left me questioning what it was that students would be voting for. Damien Cave reporting on the interest among school children compared the election to a reality TV contest (4).

While Cave might have a point, there was a real world chord that the two candidates were striking with young people. My students really cared about who won, but not because of the candidates' political positions, more as a personal statement about who would be the least "scary" president. Both candidates have sought to play on the fears and anxiety of the electorate. With Bush pinning his campaign to the War on Terror and Kerry exaggerating everything from a potential draft, the vaccine shortage and the consequences of the war in Iraq. For many young people Bush has become a focal point for their fears and sense of powerlessness. Whether it is tax cuts, supporting businesses or the War on Terror, many young people only perceive negative outcomes to such actions. They would probably rather a sitting president did nothing at all! Kerry has the advantage with young people because as the challenger he cannot be blamed for America's current predicament. He gained their support through his skepticism, i.e. by default, rather than offering an alternative program that they positively identified with.

Ultimately, that more young people turned out to vote against Bush, probably says more about their anxious state of mind and disconnection from the political process, rather than any renewed level of political commitment. The younger generation, growing up in a post-Cold War period that struggles to offer a vision of social progress, is particularly susceptible to what has been described as the Politics of Fear or Culture of Fear (5). By exaggerating the fears that we face, politicians only compound the anxiety of young people.

When half of young voters stay at home it can hardly be described as an 'historic' turnout. Perhaps the reason so many failed to vote was that the campaigns are dragging politics down by seeking to make voting 'cool' rather than taking young people seriously. It is patronizing to young people to rock the vote through popular means, emptying it of political content in the process. Rather than trying to engage young people through popular culture or playing on their anxieties political leaders should be trying to engage them in issues that matter and can make a difference to the lives of Americans, treating them as adults not children.

Alex Standish lectures and is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, New Jersey.


    1. Big Voter Turnout Seen Among Young People, The Associated Press, 8 November 2004

    2. A Turned-on turnout: Young voters showed up on Tuesday. Did the celebrities help? Michael Ross, MSNBC, 11/5/04,

       3. The Kids are Alright, Michael Moore, 7 November 2004,

4. 'Democracy Geeks' Join the Fray, Damien Cave, New York Times, October 10, 2004

5. 'The Politics of Fear', Frank Furedi, Spiked-online, October 28, 2004,


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