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Finding the meaning in Rethink ’08


Finding an outlet

In the months following the election, many young people were looking for ways to continue their involvement in politics, said Thecla Prentiss, a 20-year-old Obama volunteer.

“I think that the youth tries to find this outlet,” said Prentiss, who ended up leading the UM chapter of “Organizing for America“, a group founded by the Obama campaign to keep the momentum going. “But sometimes it is very hard to find.”

At the University of Montana, Organizing for America currently has 10 members. In November of 2009, the group held a bake sale to raise money for the homeless. It also gathered pledges to support Obama’s health care plan and hoped to start rapid response teams to call senators about health care.

“OFA is an incredible organization that brings people back together after the election,” Prentiss said. “It gives youth a way to feel like they matter again.”

The College Republicans at the University of Montana, too, are active, helping local politicians during their campaigns by handing out fliers or holding rallies. Carli Amatuzio, the group’s president, believes that those who are truly interested in politics will find a way to stay involved even after the hype wears off. “City council elections are not posted all over People magazine or MTV,” the 20-year-old said.

Sustained enthusiasm or waning fad?

Turnout numbers from recent state and city elections indeed indicate that the enthusiasm connected with the presidential campaign wasn’t sustained at the voting booth in 2009. In the Missoula city elections, almost 3,500 additional mail-in ballots were sent out to people between 18 and 29. Yet only 1,158 young people returned their ballots, compared to 2,175 in the 2007 city elections.

The 2009 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey also saw a lower turnout of young voters, compared to 1997, the most recent year with data available. In New Jersey, only 19 percent of young people turned out to vote, compared to 26 percent in 1997. In Virginia, 17 percent voted, roughly the same as in the gubernatorial race in 1997.

But turnout for local elections is always relatively low and doesn’t necessarily tie back to what’s happening in politics on the national level.

“Turnout is always much lower in off-year gubernatorial elections than in presidential years,” said Peter Levine, Director of Circle, a nonpartisan research center studying youth civic engagement, on the center’s Web site. He cautioned that “it is a statistical mistake to generalize or make predictions based on a very small sample, such as two governors’ races.”

Politics as Usual
When Rethink08 hosted an online debate on youth political involvement on Dec. 4, 2009, most of the participants agreed that the level of youth involvement in politics had gone down, but they gave different reasons for the decline.

Professor Jeffrey Greene, Political Science, University of Montana

“I was impressed and taken back at the level of enthusiasm last year but it seems to have faded quickly now that politics has returned to ‘politics as usual’,” wrote political scientist Jeffrey Greene.

“Governing is often less exciting and more messy than winning high-profile elections,” he said.

Thecla Prentiss of Organizing for America agrees that youth enthusiasm has gone down after the election. “There is no rallying force, like the campaign, all over the country,” she said.

Ward 1 Missoula City councilman Jason Wiener compared politics to the World Series.

“Lots of people who watch the World Series don’t get excited about the details of off-season trades and the seemingly endless baseball draft–even though what happens there will set the stage for future seasons and playoffs,” he wrote.

It just takes time

But Wiener also reported that politics locally in Missoula had seen an increase in applications for boards and commissions, many from people under 40, as well as more volunteerism for local campaigns.

“In the city election, I can safely say that a third of our calls were made by people under 30,” he said of the call banks staffed by volunteers for the Missoula County Democrats.

Chavvahn Gade, 22, is an Obama supporter who hopes to make a career out of helping those she believes in getting elected.

After working closely with Wiener to help Roy Houseman, 28, win a seat on the Missoula City Council, she is now managing the primary campaign of a candidate for the Montana State Legislature

Also active on the local level is Daniel Viehland, 20, another Obama volunteer who worked for the Missoula Democrats during the 2009 election.

“He was just a pro about it,” Wiener said.

Wiener said he has seen more young people turn out for issues that concern their lives, such as transportation and parks and recreation. Plans to close a polling station on the Missoula campus marshaled a quick response from youth organizations, as well.

The real measure of those involved in the 2008 elections would be taken in 2012, the Democrat said.

If young people re-emerge in force, four years after their first showing, he said, that might give a more definite answer to the question where their enthusiasm went.

Reported by Cody Bloomsburg; Anne Clausen; Tetona Dunlap; Neil LaRubbio; Passang Norbu; Gillette Vaira. Produced by Brandy Kiger. Edited by Henriette Lowisch.

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