Alexander Heffner

Young American Voters and the Coming Presidential Election

VTR Date: February 4, 2012

Alexander Heffner discusses the youth vote in the upcoming presidential election.


I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind…and 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, while 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.

And for this reason we’ll look at them today, again when the party candidates have been chosen, and perhaps once more after Americans’ 2012 Presidential ballots have been counted.

To help me do so I’ll turn now to one of those younger voters…who as a Harvard history student and freelance 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.

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, welcome, Alexander.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Thank you for having me.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Well, I’m glad you’re here and ’m glad to be able to “pump” you for your feelings, your attitudes and your knowledge as a researcher of what young people are thinking and doing in this Presidential campaign.

First, I suppose … a statistic I should mention is one that comes in terms of the fallout between 2008 and 2010. Young voter turnout fell 60% from 2008 to 2010. Democrats won’t win in 2012 if the trend continues. That’s what that press headline says. Do you think it’s true?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: I think that’s true, but at the same time in mid-term elections in the past, young people have not come out. They tend to only come out for the Presidential contest when they see candidates for Commander-in-Chief.

So that has been true of multiple Congressional elections over time.

In 2008, you saw an up-tick for the Presidential race. Not since 1992 had you see such an outpouring of young people involved in a campaign and that ultimately translating into an electoral output that put President Obama over the edge. So I would not look exclusively at the mid-terms results to dictate the … how you feel or how we should report on young people in 2012.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Yeah, but the other day or the other week I couldn’t help but note, I wanted to note … that in the online OpEd New York Times … you and a number of your age group said some rather negative things about Obama that would lead me to think you’re not going to come out and vote. What do you think about that?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, that’s true. There has been disappointment, even dejection. There’s been disengagement as a result of missed opportunities.

I think the President had the opportunity, for instance, during the college debt crisis, not just the economic crisis, but during the college debt crisis of ’09 and 2010 … all the way through to presently … he had a opportunity to go to state schools and campuses and, and campaign on behalf of young people, lobby for their cause.

And then and now the issue of debt and amassing large amounts of it, is a pressing one for, for young people. The most jarring MIA (missing in action) Obama … for young people, I think, was his absence on the campaign trail in 2010 in which he didn’t go to college campuses to advocate specifically on behalf of young people. And attack administrators for yet again raising tuition costs.

And as long as young people have this substantial degree of red ink, they’re not going to be motivated to vote.

That was the most pressing issue. In the New York Times forum that you eluded to, there are other sources of dissatisfaction with President Obama, but the fiscal one … the idea that young people are still getting a raw deal in terms of the economy, that’s the most looming one.

RICHARD HEFFNER: You mean I’ve got to believe that young people who I want to think of as idealist … we’re … really were responding to the economic situation?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: In 2008? In, in … now?

RICHARD HEFFNER: Now. Now. In what you and your colleagues were saying in the Times the other day.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I think that’s part of it. Pocketbook issues are of particular consequence, when it’s a matter of make or break. If you’re a college student or if you’re a graduate student and you’re looking for a career in a particular discipline, that is a very decisive issue.

You know, I think young people have been concerned for some time that after the healthcare passage … legislation, which was a landmark achievement in which more young people are covered now, but since then they have felt that Obama has not adequately had that punch on defending his policies or a more progressive agenda than President Clinton, for instance.

So there is a laundry list of complaints that extend beyond the pocketbook issue of the economy, but that’s the most important for now, I think.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Look, you covered the White House for Scoop44, Scoop08 became Scoop44 when the 44th President went into the White House. You know more about it than I do, how do you explain his failure, knowing the role that young people played in 2008 and he had to know it. Whey didn’t the White House follow up?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, from reporting in DC and continuing to correspond with Obama press aficionados and people who represent the President, I can say that President Obama and his team will say that they continue to mobilize young voters on campuses with email alerts, text messages to inform them of progress. Championing causes like healthcare.

So there, there continues to be on-going communication between the President and young people. But it’s not direct. It’s not explicit. I think a lot of people would like to see President Obama in this campaign cycle envision a cost-free college education.

So many secondary schools and private universities, particularly ones with huge endowments are able to offer admission free of charge to so many young people who are well qualified.

That’s, that’s something big, bold, beautiful to young people, particularly if you’re disenfranchised … particularly if you’re at a socio-economic disadvantage.

Ahem, there, there is a sense of dejection in certain cycles. But the President has an opportunity to once again cater to this millennial demographic. Some of that energy we might discuss as being channeled through Ron Paul’s candidacy. The Texas Republican who advocates America First … let’s pull out of our international commitments overseas and free the government and free the American people of regulation.

And that message is resonating because there is a sense that in the past eight years of the Bush Administration and now in the Obama Administration, there is still more emphasis and more of a priority on international measures than on domestic ones.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Now, you make the point about Ron Paul’s young followers. Is that, again, a … and hell’s bells, I’m sounding very holier than thou in saying this and I, I don’t really mean to, but I ask you about the issues and you bring up the matter of cost of going to college.

You continue by talking about young people involvements in an isolationist campaign on the Ron Paul side. That’s where they’re being stuck. That’s where they’re being hurt. Is that what we’re talking about? Catering … again, a poor word … taking note of the immediate personal interests of a part of the electorate … young people are concerned about indebtedness, thanks to the cost of college. Young people are concerned about the fact that they’re the ones who go to war, they’re the ones who lay down their lives …


RICHARD HEFFNER: … is that what we’re talking about?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Right. And they assume the brunt of financial hardship … in particular … when they’re jobless or out of school or could not enroll in school or could not pay for school.

But let me make a broader point here. The support for Ron Paul and his very dedicated, loyalists in their twenties represents something else in the political process. A desire for a third party movement … a desire for a new Ross Perot, a reform-oriented ethos in which there is just this dissatisfaction … and I’ll use that word again … with the politics as usual atmosphere in Washington, DC. With a campaign that stretches over a year and some say would … some would argue the day after Inauguration … the Republicans camped out and decided Mitt Romney is going to be our, our choice. And there’s been some debate about that, but at this point, it looks like the former Governor will be the Republican nominee.

But the point here is that if young people can channel their energy and fuel a … an insurgent candidacy … that’s a positive thing for our democracy. Whether it’s Ron Paul or someone who might be more in the center … if it’s a unity effort with a person like John Huntsman, who just bowed out of the campaign, the former Governor of Utah, and perhaps a Democrat who is more moderate or an independent like Mayor Mike Bloomberg here in New York City … young people are craving a break from partisan politics.

And unfortunately the Congress and President Obama, too, were not able to collaborate in the last three years. I mean we’ve gone through debt crisis and impasse after debt crisis and impasse … and the result has been “Wow, is this … is this our political system?”.

And, and the campaign’s length … I mean it requires so much endurance for the candidates and for the, for the people and for young people who have a very notoriously short attention span.

So, you know, there’s a larger issue here, it’s not just about bread and butter issues for young people. It’s about their empowerment in a political system that is frankly inoperable, it’s so bad.

RICHARD HEFFNER: You know, you mentioned John Huntsman and we know … we’re taping this program middle of January and we know he’s dropped out of the Republican race.

But I’m interested, as I note … a long time ago you brought Huntsman into it. In the first place you used to tell me that you thought he was a very viable candidate for the, for the Republicans.

But I’m thinking now back … as long ago as six months ago … July 13th, when you wrote a piece for the Tampa Bay Times and you wanted us to image if Obama assembled the team of Hillary Clinton for Vice President, John Huntsman for Secretary of State and you were going to take poor old Joe Biden and let him retire in honor of Huntsman and Clinton. You think that has any … if not urgency … any meaning today? Others have picked up the idea of certainly adding Hillary Clinton.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I think it would have been a worthwhile call from President Obama if he saw that Huntsman had resigned … which he did … and was possibly gearing up for an exploratory committee. We don’t know if he made that call, but it would have been worth his time to call the former Ambassador and Governor and say, “Well, let’s, let’s make this happen”.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Because of the bi-partisan notion?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Right. Right. And young people, I think would have responded enthusiastically to that prop … to, to that proposition of a bi-partisan ticket or Cabinet, in this case with Huntsman as Secretary of State.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Do you have any sense that among young people now … in, in the researches that you’ve been doing … have you seen it popping up? The notion of a Democratic, Republican ticket?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: The, the notion of that has emerged through Unity08 efforts. There was a campaign that failed in 2008 to nominate a bi-partisan ticket.

Now there … they have some corporate backing and if you read The New York Times recently there, there is an effort to enlist a Democrat and Republican or two Independents to run and there will be a virtual Primary online.

And they are trying to get this proposal sanctioned by the folks in … state by state where they have to register for the general election. So the primary, in effect, takes place online.

And this segues into an important point for young people. Young people thrive on the web … we operated three websites on the web … Scoop08, Scoop44, ScoopDaily.

And one friend, who’s a fellow journalist, and I are planning a Scoop2012, to cover this campaign.

Young people would respond well to the, the idea that they could make their selection online. And the whole possibility in the future and promise of e-balloting in which you register online … I mean right now you can register online, but the idea that you could vote online and the security apparatus would be implemented adequately so that it couldn’t be high-jacked.

I mean we know that there have been accusations of, of ballot boxes being high-jacked, in effect at polling stations. I mean I think you would see the number of caucus goers or primary goers triple, quadruple, expand infinitely if it all happened online. I mean it’s a scary proposition for you, perhaps … people are not going to …

RICHARD HEFFNER: For us old people you mean?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: (Laughter) For, for people who are accustomed to going to the ballot box and pulling a lever and that’s the way it should be done.

But, you know … communications should be done via letter, but it’s done via email today.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Well, listen … let’s …

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: And, and the numbers in this primary cycle were particularly disappointing for Republicans. Young people came out in Iowa, among, among their share … of 3%. In, in 2008 … with the Obama/Clinton rivalry and that campaign in full force, that was essentially quadrupled … 12%.

You had four times the amount of energy in the Democratic primary. In this case it was a caucus in Iowa. But in, in the primary contest so far young people have not come out.

RICHARD HEFFNER: You know, I … I … we tape a lot of shows on one day and I don’t know whether you heard Ms. Hesselbein who is an expert on leadership, whose Institute now and all through her life has focused on leadership. And you may have heard her say that she has great faith and confidence in this generation … well, your generation … that it will pick up where the best generation, so called … my generation … the war, the Second World War generation, left off.

Do you think there’s anything different about people in your age group and other young groups of people … other groups of young people in the past.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: I think that … the answer to your question is unknown so far. I think that young people have not proven themselves in the way that the “greatest generation” did. Or the “great generation” I mean depending on how far you go back.

But that’s a difficult question to answer at this juncture. I think Obama represented a transformational Presidency in which young people would be incorporated into the governing process. And that has not really happened. Or at least to the extent that it’s apparent enough to say “This is a generation that takes political power seriously and is truly invested in its democracy”.

So I’m, I’m sorry to disappoint you … it’s not that I’m not enthusiastic or upbeat about this generation. I think the potential is vast and the promise is there. But this is an opportunity in this election cycle to democratically assert yourself. And, as of yet, that hasn’t been established.

We should note that President Obama has probably the most young aides out of any President in recent history, including his Chief Speech Writer … not just someone who came along and is aiding a Deputy … this is someone who he identified during the campaign as a true wordsmith and someone who would represent his vision. And he’s still the Acting Chief Speechwriter and he’s in his twenties.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Okay, you’re talking about words and if I remember correctly, in this New York Times group of comments by young people, the headline is, right above your name: “Obama is all words, no action”.

How come, seriously, in your estimation, with that cadre of young people in the White House … why hasn’t the President acted differently? His words make me cry … his actions … shrug …


RICHARD HEFFNER: … you answer.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, that’s, that’s true … and he was enigmatic during the campaign … I mean he, he appealed to a lot of different forces within the electorate. I mean we … a lot of people say now, and it’s true … we saw him and made of his political prowess what we wanted and his message … what we wanted. And, and so young people have been disappointed, both on the Left and on the Right of the political spectrum, depending upon what they viewed as his potential, or what policies he would institute.

But we have to remember this is not an FDR in, in … personality-wise … in terms of the kind of action that comes along side the forceful rhetoric.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting … Frances Hesselbein is saying that the nature of real leadership is not to be quite as aggressive as I think your age group and even old fogies like me wanted him to be, but to compromise, to compromise, to walk in the other guys shoes. Now that’s what we’re criticizing … the President for doing overly much.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I was about to say that also in that political climate … in which President Roosevelt was able to institute so many reforms of his alphabet program … the New Deal … he had a Congress that was Democratic … I mean for the most part … and it’s not … we, we shouldn’t suggest necessarily all of the product should come out of Congress in terms of that action.

A lot of it ultimately does because they have the authority to legislate and make new laws … new laws. But in, in … I think there’s, there’s a disconnect as a result of a hyper-toxic partisan atmosphere. And that’s why we come back to the idea of a third party candidate.

I think if in 2012 there is a third party candidate, even if it’s someone who is out of the mainstream, like Ron Paul … if he is on the stage with President Obama and Governor Romney that will be a healthy thing for our democracy.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Fascinating to think of. Really fascinating to think of.

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Ah … and all words … right … all words … and just as an extension of President Obama’s efforts this cycle … you’re right … in, in 2008 there was such upset over the Bush Administration … and his conduct abroad and at home and the Bush Administration to young people resembled the ultimate 1% … right … if we talk about the 99% in the “occupy” element of the political discourse today.

But he could simply arrive on college campuses and generate huge audiences. And this cycle is going to be more challenging for him. He will have to strategize both about the message and the substance of the policy he’s putting forth.

It’s not going to be a cake walk, it’s going to be much more difficult especially if you have rowdy college kids on these campuses and, and it’s already happened to Republican candidate Rich Santorum … it will happen to President Obama … in which they interrogate you, literally.

So, it, it’s going to be interesting to see how he responds to young people who are concerned and in many cases, loud about it.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Which leads me to ask you a question about something quite different. You’re talking about the President on the campus. You’re talking about the candidates coming to the campuses. You’re talking about the possibility of a third party.

I go back to the fact that you reveal yourself in a number of places and you wrote for the New York Daily News an opinion piece and you called it “A Tale of Two Harvards” … Romney and Obama offer two contrasting visions of an elite education.

And you Harvard guys … I mean … Theodore Roosevelt, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and the two people who seem they’re about to be the candidates this year … and maybe a third.

Ah … what did you mean about contrasting visions of an elite education?

ALEXANDER HEFFNER: Well, I think that to connect with young people, you’ll have to be a true populist in this cycle. Because every financial piece of news that we see is, is about a bank or about a major corporation and I wrote this piece because the two candidates, the likely candidates on the Republican, Democratic side … they embody elitism … purely as being products of Harvard.

And they have the opportunity to extend a helping hand. Or to be the 1%, in effect, in the way they govern, in the way they view the nation … envision young people’s role.

And … I mean … I should say, overall there are two visions … one is, is President Obama who’s trying now, since his Kansas speech to embody that populist … and Mitt Romney is probably not going to be able to escape the 1% … the fact that he was at Bain Capital and made millions of dollars off firing people … in essence what he would argue is reconsolidating companies.

But that’s not what young people are going to want to hear. They’re going to want to see someone on the campaign trail who feels their pain, and is willing to be a little bit more specific policy-wise on how they’re going to fix, or help young people fix their economic quandary.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Feel their pain. That may be the key to your third party candidate, presumed.

Alexander Heffner thank you for joining me today … it’s been a real pleasure and I’ll try to get you back here when we know who those candidates are … maybe a third one among them. Thank you.


RICHARD HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience, I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile … I’ll say it a different way … as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”. And do visit The Open Mind website at mind to reprise this program on line right now. Or to draw upon our archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s mind.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.