Recent decades have seen significant declines in political participation and growing levels of political mistrust. Perhaps most disturbing, these declines have been most pronounced among young Americans. For example, according to U.S. Census data, in 1972 nearly half (49.6 percent) of 18-24 year olds voted in the presidential election. By the 1996 election, voter turnout among this group had fallen by nearly one-third, to only 32.4 percent. Many people looking at such data believe that young Americans are apathetic and disengaged from American politics.
Dismayed by these arguments, a group of Hamilton College students organized NY2K, a website designed to inform their peers about the 2000 New York U.S. Senate race between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio. In addition, they developed a national survey of 18-24 year olds to better understand young people’s attitudes about politics, and perhaps to find ways to increase their political participation.
This project was made possible by the generous support of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, which has conducted several national surveys of young people’s attitudes. The polling firm of Zogby International of Utica, NY, conducted the survey.
Zogby International contacted 402 randomly selected persons between the ages of 18 and 24 from October 13-18. The Hamilton College students of NY2K composed the survey instrument. The margin of error for the full sample was +/- 6 percent.
- In contrast to many suggestions that 18-24 year olds are alienated from politics, the survey shows most young people are involved in and aware of politics. For example, 88.1 percent of those surveyed said that they were registered to vote and 76.9 percent said that they were likely to vote in national elections. 61.7 percent said that they followed political news some of the time and 29.4 percent said that they followed it all of the time.
- Sizeable minorities also indicated even more extensive links to politics. 29.1 percent said that they have considered going into politics and 22.4 percent said that they had volunteered for a political campaign.
- 95 percent of young people surveyed indicated that issues were very important in deciding how they would vote. In contrast, only small minorities said celebrity endorsements (2.2 percent), the candidates’ race (5.2 percent), or the candidates’ physical appearance (6.2 percent) were very important to them.
- Given the importance of issues to young people, education was by far their greatest concern (27.1 percent), followed by Social Security (9.0 percent), and abortion (4.5 percent).
- When asked about various reasons for young peoples’ lack of political participation, 33.6 percent strongly agreed that politicians did not pay enough attention to young peoples’ concerns, and 32.1 percent strongly agreed that negative campaigning turned off young people. In contrast, only 7.2 percent strongly agreed that young people found politics too complicated, and only 15.2 percent strongly agreed that young people were too apathetic.
- Our survey also profiled the young people most involved in politics and those least involved. To determine these categories, respondents were asked a series of questions about their attachment to politics. They were:
- Are you registered to vote?
- Are you likely to vote in national elections?
- Have you considered going into politics?
- How often do you follow political news?
- Have you ever volunteered for a political campaign?
Based on their responses to these questions, respondents could score anywhere from 5 to 12 points, with 5 being the most engaged in politics and 12 being the least engaged in politics. “Civics” were those most involved with politics and included those respondents who scored 5 or 6. This included 83 respondents or 20.5 percent of the sample. “Disengaged” were those least involved in politics and included those who scored 9 or more. This included 90 respondents or 22.4 percent of the sample.
- “Civics” were more likely to be men (62.7 percent) than women (37.3 percent), while the “Disengaged” were 58.9 percent women and 41.1 percent men.
- “Civics” were more likely to belong to a political party (77.1 percent) than the “Disengaged,” most of whom (58.9 percent) considered themselves independents or weren’t sure about their political affiliation.
- Nearly all the “Civics” (92.8 percent) had at least some college, compared to only 68.9 percent of the “Disengaged.”
- When asked about possible methods to increase the political participation of young people, 72.9 percent believed having politicians pay more attention to young peoples’ issues would help a lot, and 70.4 percent encouraged more education about politics in the schools.
- The survey indicated that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has a relatively strong appeal among young people. When asked for whom they would vote in a race with all candidates on the ballot, 11.7 percent supported Nader. Nader’s support jumped to 21.1 percent among those who declared themselves as political independents or unsure about their party affiliation.
- Overall, in a question that asked who they would vote for in the Presidential election, George W. Bush led with 44.5 percent, with 32.8 percent for Al Gore, and 1.5 percent for Pat Buchanan.
- When asked which politician the individual favored, Bill Clinton (7.9%), George W. Bush (7.1 percent), Ralph Nader (6.3 percent), Al Gore (4.2 percent), and Jesse Ventura (4.2 percent) were ranked the highest among young voters.
- The survey also found a sizable difference among young people according to their party. For example, 19.4 percent of Democrats and 22.4 percent of independents said that a candidate’s gender was at least somewhat important to them, compared to 37.3 percent of Republicans. When asked about a candidate's sexual orientation, 23.2 percent of Democrats and 36.1 percent of independents said that this was at least somewhat important, compared to 88 percent of Republicans. When asked about a candidate’s religion, 26.5 percent of Democrats and 28.8 percent of independents said that this was at least somewhat important, compared to 65 percent of Republicans.
This survey should be a wake-up call for all who believe that young people lack an interest in political participation. Our results show that while many young Americans hold cynical views of politics, they are not completely alienated from the political system, and the majority of them are concerned about issues and the future of the government. Furthermore, a significant number of young people express a desire to go into politics and have volunteered for political campaigns. Finally, most young Americans believe that they and their peers would participate more in politics if candidates spoke to the issues that concerned them and if more attention was paid to politics in the schools. This is also reinforced by our analysis of the “Civics” and the “Disengaged,” since the former were much more likely to have at least some college education than the latter.