ISU political experts mixed on whether candidates can count on youth vote

AMES, Iowa -- Young voters were criticized by some media accounts for not turning out their promised vote to influence the 2004 presidential election.

Now a Harvard University poll released late last week of 2,546 respondents ages 18 to 24 found that 32 percent said they "definitely will be voting" in Tuesday's midterm elections -- with three in four saying they were at least 50 percent likely to vote.

But are young voters just talking the talk, or will they walk the walk and actually cast votes in tomorrow's election? Two Iowa State University political scientists are split on their projections.

Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at ISU, believes midterm candidates can count on the youth vote, which she found got a bad rap in 2004. Bystrom joined with Daniela Dimitrova, an assistant professor in Iowa State's Greenlee School of Journalism, to produce a research paper titled "Rocking the Youth Vote: How Television Covered Young Voters and Issues in a 2004 Target State."

Youth vote did represent in 2004

The researchers studied Iowa during the 2004 election, since it was one of six core states targeted by the New Voters Project to increase the number of 18- to 24-year-olds registered and mobilized to vote in that election. They found that by several measures the New Voters Project and similar initiatives targeting young voters that year were a success, as some 2.2 million new youth voters registered nationwide, according to the Federal Election Commission (2005). What's more, 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds -- or an increase of 11 percent over 2000 -- cast ballots on election day that year. In Iowa, more than 37,000 new young voters registered according to the New Voters Project, and 62 percent voted -- a number much higher than the national average.

"Actually, young people did turn out to vote in 2004. They got a bad rap in the media," said Bystrom, a co-author, co-editor and contributor to 11 books on politics, including "Gender and Elections" (2006).

"The recent survey of 18- to 24-year-olds by Harvard University's Institute of Politics indicates that the unprecedented efforts to turn out the youth vote in 2004 will carry over to the 2006 mid-term election," she said.

But Steffen Schmidt, University Professor of political science at Iowa State, isn't so sure.

"In spite of registration and mobilization efforts, college students are between lives, often live in towns and states in which they are only passing residents, and are under too much work and academic pressure to devote lots of time to politics," Schmidt said.

Lead author of the most widely adopted introductory college textbook in the U.S., "American Government and Politics Today," Schmidt believes 2006 promises to be no better than most other years as far as turning out the youth vote.

"If the country is on the wrong track, as many students think, what is the right track?" he asks. "If there is another terrorist attack with more casualties than 9-11, will the definition of right and wrong track still be the same?"

Casulaties of war prompt action

But Bystrom believes mounting casualties -- both from the war and terrorism -- is precisely why young people will continue to vote in this election.

"Youth continue to be mobilized by the war in Iraq, terrorism and national security -- but more so in 2006 than in 2004," she said. "About 40 percent of young people cite the war in Iraq, terrorism or national security as their top issue concern in 2006, compared to about 37 percent in 2004."

She cited another national survey reported by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that found that 64 percent of young voters -- compared to 50 percent of all voters -- were concerned that the United States is relying too much on military force to fight the war on terrorism.

Bystrom believes Democratic candidates will see the biggest windfall from an increasing youth vote.

"Young voters, especially women, also are a bit more likely to vote Democratic than Republican," she said. "In 2004, 57 percent of young women and 53 percent of young men voted for John Kerry for president."

Young voter turnout has hovered around 21 percent in the last four midterm elections. Since the voting age became 18, the best non-presidential election turnout was 1982, when roughly 27 percent of this demographic group participated.