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Duke Campaign Stop 2016

Campaign Stop 2016: A Duke University Election Forum

A Site for Scholarly Commentary, Debate and Media Resources for the 2016 Election

National Issues

Youth care about political platforms, not just social media ones

Oh, young voters! We’ve become election year pariahs — a matter of deep discomfort to our more civic-minded elders.

You’ve heard it all before: we’re disaffected, apathetic, lacking in civic spirit and too self-involved to bother with issues of local or national politics.

Yes, young people vote in lower numbers than most other age cohorts (pdf). But do either of the parties offer issue-based engagement with young voters?

According to the latest Current Population Survey by the US Census Bureau (pdf), young people between the ages of 18 and 34 make up 29 percent of eligible voters, compared to seniors 65 and older who are 20.1 percent of the electorate. Yet issues of interest to the young rarely make it on to the campaign websites or televised debates.

For instance, few if any candidates discuss college affordability, youth unemployment, online or on-campus voting or any health, financial security or home-ownership issues of particular interest to young people. By comparison, no debate is complete without a mandatory discussion of Social Security and old-age benefits.

Some say parties don’t address issues of interest for the young because the young don’t respond to party platforms or issues. They liked Barack Obama’s youthful charm rather than any particular platform he offered.

Using Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine, I returned to Obama’s campaign website from 2008 to see how it catered to young voters. Obama ’08 did not start looking as youth friendly as one may assume. In April 2007, the first issue on the agenda was “Strengthening America Overseas,” likely one of the least youth-friendly issues one can imagine.

By November of the same year, however, the issues page prominently featured “Technology and Innovation for a New Generation” as the first campaign promise, guaranteeing an open Internet, transparency and the use of technology to solve health care and education problems. Putting the debacle with the Affordable Care website aside, that’s the way to target young people!

By 2008, the list of issues had expanded to include a college affordability plan that promised to simplify financial aid applications and add a $4,000 college tuition discount for every student.

For the upcoming elections, we can see a similar correlation between the candidates preferred by the young and the inclusion of youth-focused issues on the candidates’ agenda. According to the December 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics poll (pdf): on the Democratic side, they #feeltheBern for Bernie Sanders; on the Republican side, they’re torn between Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Sanders advocates for tuition- and debt-free college, paid family leave and a $5.5 billion investment for a youth jobs program to lower youth unemployment. His rival Hillary Clinton recently revamped her website to include sections on campus sexual assault and college costs, which will help boost her youth appeal more than any SNL appearance.

The youth appeal of Trump and Carson is not quite as clear to me, but one can imagine that Trump’s tax plan that involves the IRS sending everyone who makes less than $25,000 (if single) or $50,000 (if married) an “I win” postcard instead of a bill would be appealing to people just joining the workforce.

In a democracy, the only way to get votes is to directly appeal to the policy preferences and ideals of voters. So what are the candidates waiting for? More of them need to come ask for young people’s vote.


Alexandra Oprea is a Duke Ph.D. student in political science.

Campaign Stop 2016