The Nation's Pulse

Friending the Vote

The youth vote is set to play a big role in this election.

By 3.3.08

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Corporate America has known it for years. Advertise to young people and they get excited and buy things. Lots of things. But until now that same mindset has failed to reach presidential campaigns.

Perhaps this is because young people have generally failed to get to the polls and vote. They watch MTV's coverage of elections, they talk about voting, sometimes they even register to vote -- but they fail to actually do it.

But something has changed. Suddenly campaigns are paying attention to young people and young people are paying attention to campaigns.

As Barack Obama put it, "We have young people who have never had a reason to participate until now." Hillary Clinton is crowding young supporters on stage at her rallies, so they are standing behind her on television. She said on 60 Minutes that one of her goals is to "set some really big vision that young people can buy into."

During Rudy Giuliani's concession speech in Florida, he noted the heightened attention from the young. "You've participated in that process -- particularly the young people here," he said.

A new generation is just now becoming of voting age. A generation that is more well-connected and has more people its members consider their close friends than any generation before it. That makes this generation more valuable to campaigns than the young people of the past.

WHAT DOES THIS large circle of friends have to do with elections? Everything. Nothing influences and persuades a voter more than talking with someone they hold in confidence.

No amount of campaign money, advertising, or door-to-door canvassing can beat being convinced by someone you consider a friend. With more friends, there is more influence, and technology is making it easier to get excited about politics.

This is a generation in which one can consider him or herself to have hundreds of close friends. The technology that these young people have glommed on to has expanded their network of friends far beyond any generation before. Consequently, young people can create momentum among the young -- quickly.

Social networking has allowed members of this generation to keep in touch with a large number of people, even after not seeing them for years. Elementary school classmates are suddenly reconnected, even though they go to different colleges across the country from one another.

Instant messaging allows the youth to talk to eight or nine of their friends at once -- while surfing the Internet, doing homework, or social networking -- allowing them to keep up with far more friends than phone calls could possibly allow.

They can text message a group of people on the fly, make a few cell phone calls, and have a social event planned in minutes, bringing together a number of people that may not know each other at the outset. Odds are, they will be friends by the end. This will be solidified by that facebook.com friend request that will come shortly after the first meeting.

THE UPSHOT IS that suddenly young people matter to politics, because they influence a large number of votes. What are they looking for in a candidate?

Not all young people are looking for the same thing. Every demographic that exists in America also exists among America's youth, along with every political view and every opinion. But, controlling for everything else, some things do seem to prevail among young people.

Facebook.com, one of the most popular social networking sites, includes pages for candidates where users can indicate their support. Barack Obama had 533, 684 supporters upon writing this article, Hillary Clinton had 114,891, and John McCain had 61,746.

That means, at least by looking at this un-scientific data, that Senator Obama is particularly popular among this social networking generation -- over four and a half times more popular than rival Hillary Clinton, and eight and a half times more popular than his perhaps-future-rival John McCain.

While older voters tend to care more about what a candidate has done in the past, young people care more about what a candidate plans to do in the future. As this generation constantly battles with the inevitable truth that the young start on the bottom rung of the ladder, the young have a special respect for those who excel and climb that ladder quickly. It goes hand-in-hand with the common dream among young people for instant fame and instant success -- the same reason we buy so heavily into reality TV and the blogosphere.

Like all voters, young people identify with the candidate that is most like them. For us, that is the candidate that is optimistic and excited about the future. The candidate that knows America is the best country in the world and believes that this nation's best days still lie ahead.

Young people do not ascribe to the cynical view that politics in Washington will always be dirty, partisan, and underhanded. Young people believe that positive change simply requires new thinking.

On top of all of this, emotion plays a major role. Young people like to connect with a candidate, and once they do they will use their wide array of connections to gather supporters from all over.

That is not to say that every young person comes to the same conclusion about what candidate to support; certainly the young are more willing to cross party lines than their older counterparts. It is not uncommon to hear support crossing party lines as candidates drop out of the race. Many avid supporters of one of the Democrats plan to vote for John McCain if their candidate loses the primary -- and vice-versa.

In their race for the White House in the 2008 election, the campaigns have paid more attention to young people than ever before. And it's working. Just as corporate America has young people spending money, some lucky candidate will have millions of young people casting votes come November.

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About the Author

Russ Ferguson is a lawyer and writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.