How Young Voters Can Surprise You

San Francisco State University student Dariel Maxwell discusses the election with KQED's Lillian Mongeau. Photo by Ian Hill/KQED.

by Ian Hill and Lillian Mongeau

“I don’t know much about the candidates.” “I haven’t been following the races.”  “I’m not really able to talk about the election.”

Typically, those were the responses we first heard when we approached students on Bay Area college campuses for the “Voices of Young Voters” project where we interviewed potential voters between the ages of 18 and 29 about politics, the election and the role of government in their lives.

When students told us they hadn’t been following the election, we pushed them a little bit. We said we wanted to hear from a variety of students, not just those with an interest in politics.

That’s when they would often surprise us.

We found that many of the 50 students we interviewed were well-informed on the challenges facing the country. They had educated opinions on topics ranging from healthcare to youth obesity to immigration, and they were passionate about many issues. Even those who insisted they “knew nothing” about the election had clearly spent time thinking about what they thought the government should and shouldn’t be doing.

“I just wish we had a little more freedom as citizens, because I feel like — slowly but surely — our liberties are kind of being taken away from us,” said San Jose State University student Tatiana McBraun.

“For a long period of time my family lived under the poverty line, and we are still barely at the poverty line right now. So the government systems to help people who do need the assistance is really vital,” added Ross Rothpanhar, a student at University of California, Berkeley.

“I feel like I’m not advocating war or anything like that, but as far as nation-building goes there needs to be a more concerted effort,” noted San Francisco State University graduate student Pete Dowdalls.

We’ve been airing opinions like those over the past few weeks during local newscasts on KQED 88.5 FM. You can hear them online in the “Voices of Young Voters” sets at SoundCloud.com/kqed as well as at SoundCloud.com/youngvoterswest, which includes additional interviews with young voters by public media organizations in Los Angeles, Oregon and Washington state.

A Gallup poll in July found that only 58 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds say they intend to vote this year, the lowest of any age group. But it’s an important demographic for the election hopes of both President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. As many as one in four eligible voters this year are in that young age group, according to NDN, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.

In addition to finding that they’re well-informed on the issues, here’s what we learned from our interviews with those young voters:

  • Students across the political spectrum expressed support for gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights and other issues typically associated with a liberal agenda, yet they all used conservative language when making arguments for those issues — the same kind of language often heard from the Tea Party. In their eyes, the government can’t grant rights, it can only take them away. So, young voters talked about liberty and freedom while saying that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be prohibited and the government should not tell women what to do with their bodies.
  • It was not a surprise that the vast majority of the voters we spoke with were socially liberal, using words like “ridiculous” and “illogical” to describe the Republican Party’s social agenda. The surprise was that even those planning to vote for Mitt Romney said they were socially liberal. To those young voters, “small government” meant limiting regulations when it comes to social issues.
  • Race and gender did not seem to dictate whom the students said they supported for president.

How might these attitudes impact the outcome of Tuesday’s election? That remains to be seen. But the influence of the Millennial generation most likely will continue to grow in the future. The Center for American Progress estimates that by 2016, Millennials will account for 36 percent of all eligible voters. The opinions expressed during the “Voices of Young Voters” project might one day be the political status quo.