During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton famously admitted to The New York Times that he had tried marijuana, even though he vehemently asserted that he did not inhale. That same year, in a town hall meeting sponsored by MTV, Clinton cemented his popularity with the youth demographic with his candid response to the even more revealing question, “Boxers or briefs?”
But despite the undeniable appeal of such statements, Yalies say a presidential candidate will have to do more than share his underwear preferences to get their vote. Most students said they were voting based on the same foreign and domestic policy issues that plague the nation as a whole, though they also expressed concern about typically “youth-oriented” issues such as higher education.
Those students voting for President George W. Bush ’68 said they favor his economic policies and his treatment of the war on terror.
“I’m voting for Bush because I feel that the way he has been waging the war on terror is more correct,” Kevin Alexander ’07 said. “I also feel that Bush will create economic prosperity.”
Nick Campbell ’06 also said he is basing his vote primarily on what he sees as Bush’s successes in foreign policy and the economy.
But if Bush’s focus on the war on terror attracts some young voters, it turns off many others.
“If you listen to the speeches that he makes, instead of addressing unemployment, balancing the budget, protecting the environment, as soon as he can, he goes into the ‘we need to fight terror, protect America,'” Dain Choi ’07 said.
Many students view the president’s decision to wage the war in Iraq as a wrong move, giving them yet another reason to vote for Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry ’66.
“People are dying every day,” Tre Borden ’06 said. “The short-sightedeness of the Bush administration is causing more and more harm.”
Seth Gladstone, New York deputy political director for the Kerry campaign, said many young people are concerned about the possibility of a draft and also about the country’s image in the international community. Gladstone described the war in Iraq as something young people will “inherit.”
Branching out from the war on terror and the war in Iraq, Gladstone said Kerry’s platform is also focusing on increasing employment. Kerry plans to increase job training, give tax breaks to companies that offer a large number of job openings and invest in new environmental technologies, Gladstone said.
Brian Farnan, executive director of Connecticut Victory — a Republican campaign office — identified employment, the state of the economy, education and the war on terror as the major issues that voters of all ages are interested in. Job growth is of particular concern to the young, he said.
“Coming out of college and high school, most young people want to have a job,” Farnan said.
Al Jiwa ’06, president of the Yale College Republicans, agreed that education and employment are important in this election, but he also identified Social Security as another major issue affecting the young. Jiwa said Bush’s “innovative” new Social Security plan and his commitment to restructuring the system are likely to attract a lot of young voters.
On the pro-Kerry side, Nirupam Sinha ’05, president of the Yale College Democrats, added health care to the list of issues influencing the youth vote. Many Yale students also listed health care as one of their top concerns.
“Abortion, health care and foreign policy are the issues I’m basing my vote on,” Christine Mathias ’07 said. “It is weird, but I see that most young voters are really interested in health care.”
Many students said they were concerned about gay marriage. Andrew Schram ’06, who said he will be voting for Kerry, mentioned gay marriage as one of the primary issues he is basing his vote on, and Borden said he strongly disagrees with Bush’s policies on the issue.
Even on Yale’s liberal campus, opinions largely conform to the national youth trends. In a pre-election survey organized by MTV’s Choose or Lose, Kerry collected 61.1 percent of the vote as opposed to Bush’s 38.9 percent. Of the approximately 100,000 participants, 84% were between 18-30 years old. The results revealed the war in Iraq as the leading issue influencing the youth vote. Gay marriage, the war on terror, race relations and job security were also identified as major issues by a large percentage of the participants.
Although the candidates may focus their attention on the middle-aged, middle-America swing voter, they by no means ignore the youth demographic in their campaigning .
Holly Teresi, communications director of the Youth Vote Coalition, a national coalition of organizations dedicated to engaging youth in politics, said the candidates are making great progress in approaching young voters. Television appearances, such as Kerry’s August appearance on “The Daily Show” also reached a wide youth audience.
But Teresi said there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Both Bush and Kerry are addressing the youth, but not enough,” she said.
Jonathan Zeff, president of 18-35, the policy research arm of America’s Youth Movement, said the candidates are more engaged in attracting young voters than past presidential candidates.
“They’re making a bigger effort than they ever have,” he said. “The youth responds, which is exciting.”
He said multiple organizations are also engaged in the process, such as the New Voter’s Project and Rock the Vote, and mentioned the online debate as a great success.
Celebrity campaigning is another factor influencing young voters’ preferences, especially in favor of the Democrats. Approximately 200 bands, including Green Day, the Foo Fighters, Offspring and Pennywise have created the PunkVoter alliance, whose intention is to mobilize America’s youth to vote against Bush. Founded by Mike Burkett (of the band NOFX), PunkVoter organized a Rock Against Bush Tour and produced the “Rock Against Bush” compilation CD.
“We don’t have the same count of rock stars as the Democrats have,” Bush campaign representative Farnan said.
Instead, Farnan said that Bush’s daughters’ campaigning efforts are a major step towards reaching out to young voters.
But Yalies said that celebrity endorsements and familial campaigning are overshadowed by more pressing concerns. Presidential candidates’ stunts designed to win youth’s favor — from Kerry’s motorcycle-riding appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” to Bush’s “Top Gun”-style airplane hanger landing — have by and large not impressed students. Instead, students said they were looking for the candidates to address real issues — both those that relate specifically to youth and, more importantly, those that pertain to the nation as a whole.
Voters are still undecided on the boxers/briefs issue.