Young Voters Learn They Matter In last week's Iowa caucuses, young voter turnout tripled. Will the same happen in New Hampshire today? Here to talk about the youth vote are political consultant Jehmu Greene; Melissa Harris Lacewell, professor of political science and African-American studies at Princeton University; and two of her Princeton students.
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Young Voters Learn They Matter

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Young Voters Learn They Matter

Young Voters Learn They Matter

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

As we speak, voters in New Hampshire are casting their votes for their favorite candidates. With the weekend of marathon speeches, debates and rallies behind them, White House presidential hopefuls wait anxiously for results to come in from today's first primary.

In the Iowa caucuses last week, the young voter turnout tripled from 2004. Will the same happen in New Hampshire today?

Here to talk to us about the youth vote that may make all the difference, we've got Jehmu Greene. She's a political consultant and former president of Rock the Vote. We're also speaking with Melissa Harris Lacewell. She is a political and African-American studies professor at Princeton University. We're also speaking with two of her students: Jacob Aronson is volunteering for Democrat Bill Richardson and Chris Nenno is volunteering for Republican contender John McCain.

Welcome, everybody.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS LACEWELL (Political Science and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Great to be here.

Mr. CHRIS NENNO (Republican Volunteer): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Jacob and Chris, this is your first time being in New Hampshire for a primary. And if it's anything like the times I've been there, it's - there's a lot of energy.

Chris, what do you say?

Mr. NENNO: Well, yeah, there really are a lot of chaotic events going on. And on every street corner, there seems to be some sort of a sign waving or chanting going on. It's quite an interesting scene to say the least.

CHIDEYA: Jacob, what about you? What's your impression?

Mr. JACOB ARONSON (Democrat Volunteer): Yeah. It's really amazing just to be up here and see all the excitement. There is just, you know, signs everywhere and, you know, people campaigning everywhere, just a lot of stuff going on.

CHIDEYA: Melissa, why did you choose to come up with a group of students?

Prof. LACEWELL: Well, again, I'm directing the politics department at Princeton this year, and we're working together with the PACE Center on campus to bring a group of two dozen students up here to New Hampshire, really, to kind of see how democracy works. And what I'll say about how democracy works is it works on the backs and legs of young people. It has been astonishing to watch all of these young people.

When we first got here, it was 10-degree weather, there were six-foot snow banks and they were going up to houses, knocking on doors. I mean, it really is the engine of democracy. It's the willingness of young people to give up their holiday break and to be in these kinds of places, working for the people who they believe will make a big difference in the way our country is run.

CHIDEYA: Jehmu, is this something that makes a difference in the big picture of politics, the way that not only young people vote but the volunteerism?

Ms. JEHMU GREENE (Former President, Rock the Vote): Well, absolutely. I think the great thing about the primary process, so far, with the incredible results from Iowa is that, now, young people who are on the front lines of the campaigns, they're seeing it actually pay off. They're seeing the candidates address this generation as a powerful voting bloc. And in the past, it's been, you know, looking at the swing vote as soccer moms or Nascar dads. I think 2008 really is setting itself up to be the year of the youth vote.

CHIDEYA: When you talk about 2008 as a year of young voters, but every year, there's this marketing effort that goes out from nonprofits, media organizations, different groups, grassroot groups that say, okay, young people rally, rally, rally. And I'm thinking of 2004 when there was a lot of hip-hop political action, at least in terms of P. Diddy being out there and voter (unintelligible), but does that really make a difference? What makes a difference in actually engaging younger voters?

Ms. GREENE: I think a lot of people in the media have been cynical about the youth vote, but we do need to go back to 2004 and examine that there were six nonpartisan groups that spent about $40 million to reach out to the youth vote. And we saw their turnout increase significantly up 9 percent. It was the driving group behind overall turnout in the '04 elections.

And then it was repeated again in 2006, where 2 million more young voters turned out to vote in the midterm elections than had in the previous midterm elections, and now followed up by the tripling of their turnout in Iowa in the caucuses last week.

I think this is clearly a trend that, you know, has been incorporated by infusing pop culture but, really, getting the candidates to spend their resources on this constituency, has what really turned it around in a way.

CHIDEYA: Chris, what are you looking for this time? I mean, maybe describe what your duties are as a volunteer, literally, what do you get up every day and do.

Mr. NENNO: Well, it's a combination of the old sign raising, making calls, you know, plenty of calls to voters around the state and going door-to-door, and from time to time I've posted some events that the senator will be doing the next several days just to make people more aware of what he's doing.

Prof. LACEWELL: And I will say also as part of the education here, we've watched debates together, we've had conversations, we've been, you know, kind of getting together and having breakfast and dinner. And we're really all trying to process together what it is we're seeing and what any of that means for sort of - if democracy is really working this well in this kind of concentrated place of New Hampshire, what does it mean for all of the other states that don't get this kind of attention. And I think that's also been a big story that the youth volunteers here have talked quite a bit about.

CHIDEYA: You know, fill us in a little bit more about that because New Hampshire gets an almost unbelievable amount of ground troops, as some people call them, you know, really the retail democracy aspect of it. If you live in California, you're not likely to have someone just walk up to your door and say, hey, do you want to come out and vote? But if you live in New Hampshire, there's probably a fairly good chance that somebody will drop by, at least drop some literature, you know, personally and make a little house call. How are things different in how are you talking to your students about how things are different in New Hampshire?

Prof. LACEWELL: Yeah. In fact, there is a fairly good chance in New Hampshire that three people will come to your door at some point over the course of a couple of weeks.

You know, again, the idea here is that the people of New Hampshire, I will say many of the students have met lots of sort of ordinary New Hampshire voters and will tell you that these people take very seriously their role as national surrogates. They recognize that the work that they're doing in choosing a nominee. But that said, we don't want surrogates in our democratic process.

We'd like to actually be able to make these choices ourselves and getting to see how it works when you're having coffee, the candidate comes in or, you know, if you go, you know, just 15 minutes to the local high school, you can listen to the candidate talk about their health care issues or their, you know, position on the war in Iraq. And when you think about the many millions of Americans who never have that opportunity, I think it almost makes you sad.

And the students have talked a lot about the fact that this is the first time for them, if they're from other kinds of states, the first time they'd ever had this kind of political experience and how much they wish it was also a part of their own political socialization growing up.

CHIDEYA: Jehmu, what can be done to really bring a sense of the vitality of retail politics to people who might not get to see a candidate? Is there a way to, you know, ways using technology or ways with outreach to really try to bring a little bit of that experience to other people in other areas?

Ms. GREENE: Well, it's definitely necessary when everyone outside of New Hampshire and Iowa usually get to know the candidates sitting on the couch of "The Daily Show" or "The Tonight Show," or what, in a sense, technology has brought to this cycle is they can get to know them a little bit better on the social networking sites, and MySpace did a debate earlier with several of the candidates.

But, really, I don't think any of these, you know, mass media mediums comes close to shaking the hands and having a coffee or sharing a burger with a candidate at your community coffee shop. And that's why New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary status is, you know, a very special deal to the citizens. They take their responsibility seriously and they really weigh each candidate and they demand, I think, a little bit more than you can get on traditional mediums that the rest of the voters across the country basically have to get their information from.

CHIDEYA: Jacob and Chris, how are your friends getting information? I mean, obviously, you're working with Melissa so already you're extremely savvy let alone the fact that you're in New Hampshire and you're at Princeton. But for friends of yours whether they go to school with you or whether they're friends from high school, what sources do they turn to, Jacob, to look for information?

Mr. ARONSON: You know, a lot of them is just, you know, go into the Web sites, you know, another candidate Web sites or also other places like YouTube where I know a lot of candidates have posted videos. Otherwise, it's definitely from watching TV like she said, you know, "Daily Show," "Tonight Show," other things like that. But there's definitely not a huge - I don't think there's a huge amount of involvement to really go out of their way to find something.

CHIDEYA: Chris, I guess I'll turn the question around. If you had a chance to go on TV and certainly you could create - we're hearing all the sounds of the election hub, by the way - but if you could create your own programming whether it went out over YouTube or on broadcast television, what kind of thing would you create for people that you know, say from high school? What would you want to broadcast?

Mr. NENNO: Well, it seems that anyone who is watching YouTube among my peers is - are only seeing the candidates gaffes and, you know, never the straight message. And I think if I were working for a particular candidate it might sense to put those students on a lister(ph), you know something of that sort where they could get an update and, you know, see the latest campaign speech or the newest policy positions. I think that might be a great way of spreading information that those students want to hear.

CHIDEYA: Melissa, before we let you guys go, what are you long to get out of this as someone who teaches the next generation of teachers, voters, political scientist, people who may have a citizen to government relationship or, you know, perhaps someone who's a leader in politics themselves? What are looking to create out of this time that you're in New Hampshire?

Prof. LACEWELL: Well, it's sort of two things. I mean, one is I often tell my students it's great to be a voter, please be a voter. But the best thing that you can do for your democracy is to plan to run for office. I don't care if it's dog catcher, I don't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat, but think about the possibility of infusing all of this brilliant new blood into politics. And so, I really want the students to get a chance, to see what it would mean to run for office.

The other big part of it is simply that, you know, you always start with a cadre of interested, engaged, smart students who then have conversations with their friends who then move out. I don't think we'll ever have the kind of turnout among the kind of under-30 crowd that you have in the 30 to 60 crowd. But you don't need that full turnout. You just simply need them to start developing what it means to be a citizen, to be engaged in your democracy, and over time they find a way to make sure that they are kind of the keepers of the new democratic system as we move, you know, into their 30s and 40s.

CHIDEYA: Well, we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks, guys.

Mr. NENNO: Thanks.

Mr. ARONSON: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Melissa Harris Lacewell. She's a professor of politics in African-American studies at Princeton University. Plus, Chris Nenno and Jacob Aronson, students at Princeton. They were all in our NPR election studios in Manchester, New Hampshire. And we also spoke with political consultant Jehmu Greene.

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