Young American Voters and the Coming Presidential Election, Part II

GUEST: Alexander Heffner
AIR DATE: 10/27/2012
VTR: 09/13/2012

I’m Richard D. Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and this is our second program about young American voters and the coming Presidential election.

We recorded the first at the very beginning of 2012, when I noted that as a college teacher during every Presidential campaign since 1948, when “Give ‘em Hell” Democrat Harry Truman beat the betting odds, fooled the pollsters, and made mockery of the Chicago Tribune’s infamous headline wrongly proclaiming Republican candidate Tom Dewey’s election as President, I’ve taken particular note of younger Americans’ attitudes towards our quadrennial Presidential sweepstakes.

Remember that until they were 21, younger Americans couldn’t actually vote at that time…not until the 26th Amendment to the Constitution nearly a quarter century later could 18-to-21-year-olds vote …while now the role they play in actually choosing our Presidents can be of major, transformative importance.

Surely it was four years ago, when Barack Obama mobilized younger voters with a vengeance, and quite decisively won their support at the ballot box. 53 per cent of all voters chose the Democratic Presidential candidate in 2008, but voters under age 30 gave him 66 per cent of their vote.

This year, then, it’s obvious that what we learn about younger voters’ leanings in the Presidential campaign will be crucially significant.

For this reason we looked at them at the very beginning of the year, and we do so again now that the major party candidates for President have been chosen. Perhaps we’ll do so once more after the ballots have been counted.

To help me, I turn once again now to one of those younger voters … who as a Harvard history student and free lance journalist has over the past four years researched and written scads of commentaries on the subject.

A founder and the Editor of the national student outlet Scoop08, Alexander Heffner also closely covered the last Presidential campaign.

Of course, the niceties of full disclosure would have me add that Alexander is my grandson and worked with me in producing the 8th Revised and Expanded Edition of A Documentary History of the United States. So, Alexander, welcome back.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Thanks for having me.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Well, you know, it’s a pleasure and it’s important to me to, to find out from you, as one who does follow these things whether anything significant in your estimation has happened in terms of Obama, Romney … now the candidate for the Republican Party and the youth vote since we spoke at the beginning of the year.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: There hasn’t been a marked change in terms of young people’s enthusiasm. They’re not as excited as they were in 2008.

But I think President Obama’s convention speech in which he really encouraged a collective duty … “you built this, you brought health care reform to this country”. I think that sparked more attention, more enthusiasm and hopefully for his Presidential re-election bid, ultimately electoral votes that count.

Younger voters in swing states like Ohio, Florida, New Mexico and others across the country.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Have the polls indicated that at all, as the lift that the conventions usually give candidates … lifted him in terms of the youth vote?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well President Obama experienced a bounce among all registered and likely voters and that included the 18 to 29 demographic.

But it was not a drastic shift. As you mention in your introduction, President Obama won over 60% of young people’s votes in 2008.

He’s polling right now around 55% to 60%. He actually has not increased his margin post 2010 mid-term elections. And that’s crucial in order for him to secure victory.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: What do you mean, explain that.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: He, he has not … once again reached the level of excitement in the polling data … the margin here is what’s really significant. In 1972 there was probably more electoral activity in terms of actually how many young people swung the levers.

In 2008 what was so decisive was that President Obama defeated Senator McCain in the margin so substantially that McCain won roughly 30% … in some estimates under 30% of young people’s votes.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Yeah, but you know, you’ve put together for me, and I’m grateful to you … a number of pieces that have been written about young people over this past … well, nearly a year now and there’s a kind of down-beat about it. Kids are out of work, they’re just as negative as some of the adults are about that.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I think what’s happened since we last met is that there’s an acknowledgement that the President’s not Superman.

And there had to be some understanding that the President single-handedly was not capable of overall overhaul in Washington, DC.

That he needs a Congress to support him. That he lost that in 2010 and subsequently he’s trying to regain the respect of young people by visiting college campuses again.

So there was not one moment … if I had to capture it in and event or speech it would be the Convention speeches, which collectively I think pointed out a stark difference of direction.

One issue that is very important to young voters is Pell Grants. And under the Romney/Ryan proposal … or at least under Congressman Ryan’s proposal … there would be a major slash, if not entire elimination of Pell Grants.

So I think the message from the Convention was that there’s, there’s a huge difference and your activism, your engagement, your volunteerism, moving towards the election matters.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: You think it will develop? It matters, do you think it will be there?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, there are some obstacles and we might discuss them.

One is the voter ID legislation that really has become pervasive across a number of swing states.

There are three elements here that are important to discuss. One is the actual voter ID … some students try to register. Ultimately go to their ballot box with a student ID. In some states that’s not allowable any more.

The second is early voting procedures. In Ohio and Florida those rules have now been suspended, but the Republican governors there wanted to enact legislation and, and successfully did, that would eliminate early voting.

There’s a third issue in terms of third party organizations. Like Rock the Vote, like the League of Women Voters. They try to register young people, particularly 18 to 25 year olds and college students.

And they fact new obstacles in order to register, they have to collect signatures at the, at the same time all the new registrants and it’s … it’s proving extremely problematic … for them and therefore in states like Florida, the registration numbers of young Democrats and to some extent young Republicans are not the same.

But for President Obama to win a swing state like Florida, where there are a number of major universities … he’s going to have to overcome this, this obstacle that we already know exists … which is there just aren’t as many registered young voters as there were in 2008.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Well, let me, let me ask you that … about that … is there a real indication that in 2008 the activities that state legislation has now … made impossible perhaps in some states … was significant then. I mean have the state changes in registration procedures or who can help … can outside agencies participate in organizing. Was it important?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: It was, it was very important. I mean but also some of these laws came into effect in the year after President Obama was inaugurated. So we saw in 2010 a record low turn out …

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Got’cha!

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: … and therefore it’s tangible evidence that these kinds of laws can, can really damage young people’s interest and ultimate activity on election day.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Do they know? Do they care?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I think young people do care and I think that there’s a sense, particularly with the rising deficit of a civic … a civic obligation and President Obama in his Convention speech argued that citizenship is important. And he, he made a JFK-esque plea to young Americans to engage in their democracy.

And I think that that now requires one or two months of activity all the way until the November vote. But if he can capitalize on a resurgence of enthusiasm it will be because he’s ultimately reminding young Americans that they are in control of their destiny. And that they, through technology, through innovation … and, and through sort of the entrepreneurial spirit of the last decade … organizations like FaceBook and others that really came to the fore as a result of young people … that they, too, can partake in this and that, that means in, in essence voting on election day.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you a question that I, I admit I had not thought about before … what about the other side of the coin? We’re talking about President Obama and his re-election, but what about the youth vote among the Republicans?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, during the primary campaign the youth vote was split between Governor Romney, Senator Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich … Romney was never able to capitalize on young people’s support and his grass roots operation failed. Because if it were not for millions of dollars that were funding television ads, that were not funded by young people, but funded by mega-corporations young people would have probably … among conservatives, picked a different nominee.

I think there is a collective enthusiasm among young conservatives to not let President Obama serve a second term in office.

So, we shouldn’t’ underestimate the potential power of the, the “nay”. But what Governor Romney has been unable to do is, is really capture the heart and soul of his party and really infiltrate young peoples hearts and minds in, in a way that’s going to create a new American vision in which these young conservatives can participate.

So there, there was never a tremendous of enthusiasm concerning Governor Romney or his bid in 2008 or his subsequent bid. The best the Republicans can hope is that the anti-Obama forces are going to be stronger than the re-election efforts on the part of the President and his campaign.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Do you think that those anti-Obama young votes will grow and grow?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, it depends on what surfaces with respect to economic data and … but really the hardship that’s felt by all Americans … young Americans share in that hardship and it’s difficult to predict exactly how those sentiments are going to translate into votes or an absent of votes … an absence of votes for one candidate.

You know, the, the decisive feeling, I think, which again is a shared feeling will come after the debates in which you will see two candidates who are prepared to lead the country in vastly different directions.

And what young people tend to support in polling data … Social Security, Medicare … infrastructure, Pell grants, research and development at universities all things that the Republican ticket does not want to include in future American budgets.

So that message, I think the President and Vice President tried to drive home during the convention … that all of these existing programs that are funded and sponsored by the government may not be available if the Republicans are elected and, and that’s a fair argument to make to young voters and if it’s presented holistically, not as necessarily just individual programs than it can have an effect on election day.

I said to you during our last conversation that I think the President has to really go to college campuses and explain to young voters new programs that he wants to institute, but I think the overwhelming sentiment is that it’s an ideological battle for the heart of the country at this point.

And that there are specific plans like a continued increase in Pell Grants that young voters would champion and that might propel them to vote Democrat but really it’s the message, not necessarily the details for college students at this point.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: You know, but you know you keep talking about Pell Grants and I go back to a May Newsday piece by Alexander Heffner saying “New college grads need hope, too”. And in a couple of things that you’ve written I’m aware that you’re saying “Hey, talking to us about our debts or talking to us about Pell Grants, that’s not enough. We need a vision of the long range future. We need to think in terms of growing up to real jobs and real security.”

Aren’t you kind of backing away from that when you talk about Pell Grants?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: I don’t think I’m backing away from that. Because I think there needs to be a substantiation of a vision through policy proposals that may be different from what the President articulated in 2008.

So he promised young Americans that he would increase Pell Grants. Now that’s a notable achievement in the eyes of young Americans but it does not radically alter higher education and the fate of both students at the secondary level and at the college level, as well as recent grads. And it does not really alter their equation of continued debts as the tuitions increase at all major universities.

But one thing that I pointed out in several of these pieces in the run-up to the primary and subsequently was there are two important demographics. There are the young voters who can really remain as idealistic … new young voters who retain the feeling of hope and change.

These are 18 to 22 year olds roughly and they represent the second generation of young Obama volunteers who are part of that essential both governing and now again campaign infrastructure.

But then there are the recent graduates, so … 23 to 28 roughly … they’re less, at this point, excited at the prospect of another nasty election campaign that in their judgment is going to amount to a failed political system.

I think a lot of them would have liked a unity effort and that failed. We talked about that our last discussion here … but they’re more pragmatic. They know that fiscal year budgets in Congress are not going to be rubber stamped by any party in this polarized environment. And that was the failure and the stalemates that we saw over the last two years in terms of just passing a budget.

I think they’re more pragmatic, their votes are potentially in the balance and I think really in terms of honing a, a message beyond college campuses, beyond Pell Grants, that vision that you’re referring to … he really … the President needs to get those votes back, the ones who supported him in 2008, who are now in their mid-twenties, or late twenties.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: You think he will?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: I think he will. I think that many of the polls that I’ve seen do not forecast a number above 60 … another … in terms of the President’s support within 18 to 29 …

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Right.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: … demographic. Another, another indicator here is that there was a poll question asked by many surveys, “Are you definitely going to vote?” (Laugh) And that’s an important one to really seal the deal for young voters.

And in 2007 and 2008 in the lead up to that unprecedented surge of enthusiasm, more young people were saying … over half of young people were saying, “I’m definitely going to vote. I’m excited.” That number slipped. And it’s grown since the 2010 mid-terms, but it’s not where the President wants it to be. And that’s a hard thing to really tackle.

For those who are attentive to politics and are considering Republican, Democratic candidates … those are the voters the President’s going after.

It’s hard to capture the vote of people who have just decided they’re disengaged. That will be a challenge. But do I think that the President has a, a … fairly good odds of securing, you know, at least 55% of young people? Sure.

But I think in terms of winning the states that he needs to, I’d be surprised if he wins re-election if he does not get at least that 60% margin within that 18 to 29 demographic.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: You know, ahem, the question that, that’s come up … I’ve asked my students in class whether they’re going to vote. And I get 100% … “Oh yes, we’re going to vote”. I don’t believe it. I think it’s because they think the teacher thinks they should vote, as not just good students, but good citizens.

But I wonder about that and I wonder about what you have to say about the social media and this campaign.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: The social media is alive and well, but as many anchors and television personalities mention when they did the coverage of the primaries … there were more tweets than votes in many cases.

So when you go on twitter, as you know, you “tweet” …

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: You know I don’t know. You know … I don’t know.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: … summarize a thesis, you write a snarky post under a certain number of words. And people reach out via FaceBook and other methods.

But what was a very obvious reality that these television personalities weren’t mentioning is that there … there was more activity virtually than there turned out to be for Ron Paul, for instance, in so many of the states where he actually came in second or third place.

And yet, the grass roots libertarian operation that exists online did not transcend and become an electoral force. So, had some of the folks on their computers actually voted, Ron Paul could be the Republican nominee, in theory. But, I think …

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Excuse me, Alexander, but are you saying “tweet, tweet, tweet …”, they’re there tweeting away, but not voting.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: I mean words are not action and that really is the fundamental truth behind young voters pre-2008 and then there was a new welcome reality of young voters after the President won and then back in 2010 there was again that sense that young voters were once again dead or lethargic or just MIA. And for civic advocates like both of us that’s unacceptable.

I’m about to embark on a tour of college campuses in which I’m going to actually feel out a number of universities in Nebraska and California and elsewhere and I’ll report back to you what I find … both in the … leading up to the November vote and beyond and what the feeling is on campuses in the aftermath of the election, because it maybe that if President Obama does not win … young voters come out of the woodwork and said, “Man, I should have voted”. That’s not what the President’s campaign wants to hear, but it may be a, a really sad awakening that this was a one time change in the pattern of young people’s votes and it’s not going to ultimately escalate …

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: How well in your estimation are the Obama people doing in their electronic campaign?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, they’re doing the best that they can. They’re not utilizing text messages quite as frequently as I might have thought they would.

They announced via text message a whole host of things during the 2008 campaign. And I know that there are regular updates via email, but I wonder … and I’m on many of these lists … I wonder to what extent they’re going to utilize cell phones.

Because polling, as you know, has become fairly difficult in this day and age when so many people, especially 18 to 29 year olds, have cell phones, but not landlines. And the mobile device is a great instrument to remind people the week of the election … on Monday or Sunday or that weekend … “go ahead and vote”.

Or, what about early voting. I mean that’s why young voters, I think would be disappointed and sometimes given their schedule not able to make the ballet box on the actual election. So text messages could play a very important role in galvanizing young voters this time around.

They, they did, according to the Obama campaign back in 2008. And it’s an opportunity to engage with young voters during the debates, after the debates and then ultimately in preparation for the election.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: And did they play any role during the Republican debates? I mean that seemed to go on forever, the choice of a Republican candidate. Did … were they smart about what they did, in your estimation?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I think that all 21st century, 2012, campaigns dating all the way back to the beginning of this primary cycle … I think all of the campaigns on the Left and on the Right were well aware that they had to use these kinds of methods. To what extent they, they did satisfactorily or, you know, one campaign was superior to another, I don’t think that’s really been reported out yet.

I think that one thing that we, we do know is that had Romney not had the financial advantage, the grass root techniques may have lead to a different nominee.

Because a lot of Conservatives in the Southern primary states and also Southwest were before Romney became the presumptive nominee, leaning towards a different candidate.

They were so much of the, of the story around the 2012 GOP primary campaign was “None of the above” and so it’s hard to make the magic equation work when you have a candidate in whom, you know, a lot of the base doesn’t even really trust. And I think that was the case and it remains to be seen if Romney will electrify the Evangelicals and the other vital forces within the Republican Party.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: You mentioned Ron Paul, we just have less than two minutes left. You mentioned Ron Paul before, how do you explain the young people being so involved with Ron Paul?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I think that a lot of young people are free spirited, therefore they gravitate towards the Libertarian ethos of politics.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: With an old man?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: With an old man. With, with anyone but Romney. I mean I think people … folks in the media did not necessarily understand the Paul phenomenon, it was really not about Ron Paul whatsoever. It was about a thirst for a new kind of politics that was not so attached to a party. It was an embrace of a candidate who’s willing to challenge his party on the debate stage.

I mean it was, it was … it was not about Ron Paul. And, unfortunately, on the other end of the spectrum, someone who was viewed as a, as an utter failure, John Huntsman, really represented to his supporters some of the same … in terms of the Paul phenomenon. A, a different way forward that is not categorically Conservative, but can really represent a unified path for better governance. And, as you know, John Huntsman did not speak at the Republican Convention and he’s been to the several universities, he spoke at Duke recently, but it remains to be seen if his brand of politics can be accepted and break through the two party system.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: Ask you that next time, Alexander. Thanks for joining me today.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Thank you.

RICHARD D. HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.