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Rethinking the Youth Vote

In 2008, young people told each other of important political events on Facebook and Twitter. They campaigned for and donated money to the presidential candidate of their choice, then turned out in record numbers for the election. With their help, Barack Obama was elected the first black president in U.S. history. The millennials, a new generation of voters, had shown their mettle, and some analysts predicted that their enthusiasm wouldn’t stop at the voting booth.

One year later, in the fall of 2009, press reports and anecdotal evidence pointed in a different direction. Youthful activists weren’t raising their voices in force, even during debates on health care, the economy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Had the media simply stopped paying attention? Or had the millennial generation, for one reason or the other, retreated from the public sphere?

Rethink08 set out to investigate, using traditional reporting methods as well as novel ways to engage the public. Focusing on the community of Missoula, a university town in Montana, the initiators aimed at making young people part of their journalistic inquiry.

If you could change your vote, would you?

Exactly one year after the election, on Nov. 4, 2009, eight graduate students of the School of Journalism set up a mobile photo studio on the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula. They asked passersby to express their opinions on Obama then and now, using gestures and facial expressions instead of sound bites or wordy explanations.

Asked to show how they felt about Obama in 2008, two-thirds of the 50 participants smiled for the camera, gave a thumbs-up or otherwise expressed the hope and elation they felt on Election Day. One third revealed that, even in 2008, they were critical or somewhat skeptical of the Democratic candidate.

Click here to see more Interviews Without Words
When asked for their feelings about the president on the anniversary of his election, the spectrum of expressions became more diverse. About 20 percent reiterated their strong support for Obama; an equal number expressed disappointment. Another fifth signaled that they were somewhat disappointed, yet still holding out and giving the president the benefit of a doubt.

This ambivalence was reflected in many comments to the “Interviews without Words” on the Rethink08 Web site. “The excitement during election season may have faded but it’s not all lost,” one commenter said.

More vocal in the comment section were those who were angry about or disappointed with Obama the president. “I think this photo explains so much about how people are either frustrated with where things are going, or just don’t care anymore,” one commenter said. “Picture portrays some of my feelings with the empty words from the president that has filled the news since the election.” Another commenter said: “I think that many Montanans embraced the historic event, but now we see that Obama is a fraud.”

The ballots are in

The Interviews without Words represented a self-selected and thus somewhat arbitrary sample of the youth vote. In-depth profiles of young voters added another layer to the investigation, from Jessica Kotur, who voted for John McCain on the single issue of abortion, to Anicka Kratina-Hathaway, who voted for Obama but now said that she had come to mistrust him completely.

A representative study published in December of 2009 showed the young electorate similarly torn. The poll of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that most 18- to 29-year-olds still supported the president, but disagreed with him on major policy issues such as Afghanistan, health care or the budget deficit.

When young people voted in 2008, the economy was their main concern, followed by the war in Iraq, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. When the Harvard poll asked 18- to 29-year-olds in the fall of 2009 about the issues that concerned them most, the economy had become even more important to them, followed by health care, the budget deficit, energy and Afghanistan.

On the University of Montana campus in Missoula, one issue that resonates strongly with young people is the environment. In the fall of 2008, students developed a group called Climate Action Now, also known as UM CAN. According to Nicky Phear, coordinator of the university’s minor in climate change, the organization has about 50 active members, some of whom have attended regional and national conferences. They have also lobbied politicians and UM president George Dennison. “They are working a lot in terms of advocacy on campus,” Phear said.

UM CAN started the Revolving Energy Loan Fund, to which UM students can donate $4 through their tuition payments each semester. The funds go toward reducing waste and increasing energy efficiency on campus. Within the first year, the initiative that was passed by the Student Senate and put into place in the fall of 2009 raised $55,000.

Read More on Rethinking the Youth Vote

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