MANCHESTER, N.H. _ Abby Smagula is ready to vote and campaign for Bill Bradley in New Hampshire’s primary Feb. 1 — if she can get out of school early.
“He seems like such a down-to-earth guy,” she said. “I shook his hand when he visited. I was pretty pumped.”
With the nation’s first primary approaching, young New Hampshire voters like 18-year-old Smagula offer unusual glimpses into young people’s views of politics. As students in New Hampshire’s largest city, she and her senior classmates at Manchester High School West are ardently pursued by candidates and their campaigns. And the majority — 82.7 percent in a recent poll — of West High’s seniors say they will do something unorthodox: vote.
But analysts of American voting patterns are skeptical of the young because they seldom show up at the polls. And new studies indicate that that trend will continue.
“There is nothing in the data to suggest that voters aged 18 to 24 will be using their ballots in a way that reflects the importance of the process,” said Marvin Kalb, executive director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. In a recent national study, the Center found young voters to be disinterested in the presidential election. The potential high turnout of Manchester West students, Kalb said, would be “extraordinary.” Added Kalb, “It’s very encouraging to know that some young voters have a positive view of this election.”
But, he said, expectations for all other young voters are much bleaker. Turnout among young voters, predicted Kalb, is likely to be “disappointing.”
The recent Shorenstein Center study supports Kalb’s concerns. Young Americans are only half as likely as those 30 and older to be paying close attention to the campaign, the study found. In the same poll, 25 percent of adults under 30 said the election’s outcome will make “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of difference in their lives. That compares to 32 percent of older Americans who say the election matters a great deal.
In the 1996 presidential election, 28 percent of high school-age students nationally voted, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. That’s a sharp contrast to the 82.7 percent of Manchester West seniors who say they’ll vote. In fact, the Manchester West students’ turnout would nearly double the youth voting all-time high of 42 percent in 1972, according to the committee.
Curtis Gans, director of that group, ascribes shrinking political interest among young people to a paucity of participatory values. That’s a by product of sensational politics, he added.
“Candidates are not addressing young voters,” he said. “What we have done over the past three and a half decades is dampen the impulse of young voters. What works best is mobilizing their idealism.”
National test results released by the Department of Education in November offer another reason for poor youth voting rates. The test found that 35 percent of American 12th graders tested did not have a basic understanding of civics. That statistic and the decrease in political interest among young voters is related, said Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education.
“The turnout drop is directly attributable to not getting civics classes in the schools,” he said. “I don’t think young people understand the process or the importance.”
At Manchester West, students witness civics in action. They often meet and talk to presidential candidates. The experience is so intense that some candidates have to take a number for a moment of students’ time, said West High Principal G. Leonard Nase.
“If you’re a major candidate, we’ll provide a forum for you,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll give you a social studies class.”
All that attention gives Manchester West a distinction among the nation’s high schools. But the attention is inspiring to the students, said sophomore Crystal Rousseau.
“When candidates come to the school it gets everyone talking,” said Rousseau, 16.
Not all of Manchester West’s students are enthusiastic about the election.
Senior Beth Leatherman will not be voting in the primary. It would be irresponsible to vote without learning more, she said.
“I don’t know enough about the candidates,” Leatherman said. “It doesn’t make sense to me to vote if I don’t know what I think.” She does not have confidence in the rest of the senior class either. “I don’t think they know what they’d be voting for,” she said.
Smagula, the Bradley supporter, also doubts her classmates’ intentions. She predicts that only half of those registered will end up at the polls. “They think it doesn’t make a difference,” she said. “They don’t see the incentive.”
She added: “America’s role in the next century lies with the next generation. If you just pick one politician you like, then you’re doing something.”