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Will the Young Politicos Who Rocked the 2008 Vote Make Their Voices Heard in November?
by Alexis Veith
"I love to serve," says Natalie Petit '12, who just finished her senior year and her term as Student Government Association (SGA) president. "I may not be the complaining type, but it's because I take my concerns, complaints and ideas right to the source."
Petit is a Millennial voter, a group growing in prominence and importance after they helped shape the 2008 presidential election and flipped the script on how major campaigns are run. After turning out in record numbers and helping to swing battleground states like Indiana and North Carolina toward President Obama four years ago, voters under 30- once dismissed by pundits as unreliable and disinterested- are now considered a key demographic. It's a group that is largely personified in Petit.
They are liberal. In the 2008 presidential election, 45 percent of voters age 1829 identified themselves as Democrats, compared to Republicans at 26 percent or Independents at 29 percent. "I identify with the Democratic Party," says Petit. "I really do believe that together we can all succeed and fundamental values are that we should benefit and support all."
They are passionate. Millennials did more than turn up on Election Day. According to a Pew Research Center post-election survey, 28 percent of young voters in battleground states said they attended a campaign event in 2008, far more than in any other age group. "I've seen Obama host college Town Hall meetings and that in itself was motivating," says Petit.
Though they were less likely to donate money than older voters, they were eager to give their time and are widely credited with encouraging their friends and family to come to the polls.
Above all, they are plugged in. Raised in the 24-hour news cycle and often referred to as "the Internet generation", the Obama campaign spoke to them in their natural habitat, using YouTube and Facebook to disseminate its message and mobilize supporters. Twenty-four year old Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, ran the Obama new media campaign in '08. "Just by updating a status, providing free incentives like bumper stickers, and putting out YouTube videos, candidates can reach millions of people in no time at all," says Petit.
What was groundbreaking four years ago is now part of the standard political protocol and both parties are now making a play to get young voters on their side. In April, GOP nominee Mitt Romney hosted what he called a "youth conference call" to discuss how the current administration's policies are affecting young adults and present his own alternatives. President Obama spent the spring touring college campuses. Both candidates have promised to tackle the issue of student loan debt, Romney even breaking ranks with his party's leadership to support a Democratic initiative to extend low interest rates on student loans.
Romney keeps his Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts active and up to date, while President Obama uses his official White House accounts as as ever.
And yet, while both sides of the aisle are eagerly courting young voters this go-round, early research suggests the Millennials' interest is waning. According to a Pew Research Center study, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election, only 13 percent of Millennials describe themselves as "giving a lot of thought" to the 2012 election. It's a sharp decline compared to four years ago, when the 28 percent described themselves that way. Gen X and Boomers have them significantly outpaced with 27 and 36 percent respectively.
"The issues being decided now will affect our future and all too often I run into students or peers who either do not vote or are dumbfounded when they hear what is happening in our society," says Petit. "Don't complain about your job, healthcare or government support if you have yet to vote or get involved in politics."
Corey Theodore '14, a rising senior and SGA president-elect, takes a more optimistic view. "One of the interesting qualities of my generation is the varying types of individuals it contains," says Theodore. "While some of them are disinterested in politics, I feel that most are at least aware of the major issues at stake and many are well-informed."
Peter Maxwell '14 stands on the opposite side of the aisle from Petit, but shares his concern about their peers. "I don't feel as though others my age are well-informed and active in politics. I view this election as the most important election in our nation's history. I have been reading, watching and listening to this campaign very closely and will vote based on beliefs, not trends."
Theodore and Maxwell are both bucking the trend within their demographic. Both fall outside the Democratic majority of Millennials.
"I've always considered myself a free thinker and one who dislikes being locked into a certain mindset or paradigm," says Theodore. "Neither party encompasses all that I believe, so I am not enrolled in either one."
Maxwell is a proud Republican who lists the economy as his primary issue of concern. "This will be my second time voting [in a presidential election]," he says. "I voted in 2008 for the first time when I was 19 and I voted Republican. I am registered in the state of Michigan and plan to submit my absentee ballot. I feel Mitt Romney will bring fiscal restraint to Washington and force our government to live within its means."
Despite his fiscal conservatism, Maxwell's views on social issues, as with many Republicans ages 18-29, do skew to the left. According to RocktheVote.com, 19 percent of young Republicans list the economy as the issue most important to them. Immigration came in second with 15 percent. Despite dominating the national conversation within the media, social issues like gay marriage and abortion did not earn a spot on the Rock the Vote list of issues most important to young Republicans.
"Honestly, gay marriage should not be a political issue. We are all human and for this to be an issue politically is a little outlandish. There is a separation between church and state," says Maxwell, adding, "Those issues are high on the media radar, but the main issue is the economy and jobs."
Theodore, the Independent, thinks his fellow Millennials are only just starting to recognize their political might. "With the recent Occupy movements and online protests of the SOPA and PIPA bills (two pieces of legislation aimed at preventing online piracy), the younger citizens of this country are just beginning to realize just how expansive our influence is within the political arena."
For the moment, they are exercising their influence on a more local level. "I love to lead and getting involved with SGA provided that platform for personal growth and leadership," says Petit, who won the New Era Award for the Class of 2012. "Through SGA I found my calling to lead not just students, but an organization. That is why I'm pursuing a master's degree in public administration in the fall. I see the next 10 years as a stepping stone for networking and hands-on learning. Running for office one day is definitely a possibility."
Theodore, planning SGA's president-elect, is for a future in medicine rather than politics, but hopes to have a productive term in office. "My main concern as the incoming SGA president is to ease frustration and catalyze the communication between the student body and senior staff," he says. "The senior staff are incredibly skilled at what they do and maintain a genuine interest in the student population they serve. The students have some wonderful ideas to improve the College and make their time here even more rewarding; the problem is that students are not aware of the proper channels through which they should distribute those ideas."
And what do they think America will be like when the Millennials are running it?
"We expect everything to be done very rapidly," says Theodore. "This expectation will no doubt flow over into the world of politics. Changes in policy will happen more readily, the government system will definitely be more fluid in the future."
"I hope the value of education and our economic standing amongst other nations will have improved," says Petit.
Until then they encourage their peers and all Americans to stay involved and informed in the process.
"To those who would say it is boring, I counter that politics are the backbone of society," says Theodore. "Those who say one vote doesn't matter, I'd say that the sum of those votes is what determines change. To make your voice heard you must vote."