Young people have always been more hip to technology and the Internet than their parents - and usually more politically out of it.
But with the emergence of technology as an organizing tool in the presidential campaign, young voters are turning their expertise in all things digital into a real-life voice in elections.
Pointing to the record-shattering youth turnouts in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, experts and young political types give credit in part to social networking and text messaging, saying they’ve helped young voters get involved more than at any time since the Vietnam era.
Other factors, such as the Iraq war and the appeal of nontraditional candidates such as Barack Obama, are part of the youth boom. And technology is still no substitute for real-life interaction in driving votes. But it has eased interaction and removed obstructions like cost and time and effort to learn about candidates and get involved.
“The barriers to entry (into politics) overall are lower. Plus, this generation spends an enormous amount of time online,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, the liberal activist group that recently released a Web-based set of political tools for organizing, phone banking and voter registration. “If TV made it as easy to get engaged, you would have seen the same kind of boom 40 years ago.”
The trend, those involved say, appeals to young people’s desire to contribute to the conversation and express themselves without editing or permission - rather than just be lectured at, as their teachers and parents have done their whole lives.
“You like a candidate but maybe you don’t want to actually volunteer or go knock on doors,” said Brian Lawson, a 22-year-old political science major at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., whose New Hampshire Presidential Watch blog (www.nh2008.blogspot.com) gets about 8,000 unique visitors every day.
“You may be really good at coming up with a video about them, or maybe you want to do a blog about that candidate somehow.”
Technology gives young voters access to information from their own peers, rather than spin from the campaigns or the media.
“Young people ... are very suspicious of strangers with agendas,” said Pete Levine, director of the University of Maryland-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which promotes research on the civic and political engagement of people ages 15 to 25.
“Whether it’s candidates, the way they perceive reporters. ... They go to human beings that they trust as intermediaries, like their parents and friends. The online space does give you a chance to do that, because you can go see what your literal face-to-face friends have put up.”
And because they’re doing it themselves, they get to flex the independence they’ve spent their adolescent and teen years trying to earn - an important psychological edge at a time when 18- to 24-year-olds have just begun to stretch their wings, both in politics and in life.
“What these technologies are doing is they’re giving young people an unprecedented amount of power and access to the political process,” said David Burstein, 19, whose documentary “18 in `08,” about young people and politics, was released late last year.
And not only does it speak to young people, it’s also driven by the under-30 population. They’re coming up with the new technologies, they’re taking over the campaigns’ online strategies, and they’re producing the videos that become viral on YouTube.
That age group’s vote is being credited, in large part, with Obama’s win in Iowa - where youth turnout was three times higher than in previous years. In New Hampshire, the number of young voters was nearly double what it was in 2000, the last time both parties had a contested primary.
“Young people very much want to be included, and in this particular election, young people are really wanting a voice,” Burstein said. “We saw it in Iowa and New Hampshire. Young people are staking a claim. In this case, they’re saying to the politicians, `I want to be a part of what you’re doing.’”
At a meet-up event for “DC for Obama” at a bar in Washington last week, more than 100 supporters showed up to rally - many of whom had been initially contacted online.
Before Obama’s victory in Iowa, supporters at George Washington University scoured through the profiles of fellow students for those who listed Iowa as their home state on a university Web site.
They then contacted them through the site and urged them to turn out on caucus night.
Technology has, unmistakably, made it easier for people of all ages to get involved and educated politically. But it stands to reason that the impact on young people will be incrementally higher - because young people spend more time online, understand the technology and benefit from its efficiency.
It also helps tremendously in the effort to create buzz and visibility, the intangibles in the election process that TV commercials, direct mail and even songs on the radio haven’t quite been able to accomplish with younger voters.
Mitt Romney’s campaign keyed into a youth-hype phenomenon from 2006, with a personalized voice-mail program that allows people to go to the Web site and send their friends or family members a voice mail from Romney. A similar tactic was used with the promotion of the movie “Snakes on a Plane,” which earned kudos for “viral marketing.”
A study at the Students Public Interest Research Group, which works to turn out votes nationwide among college students, last year found that sending a text message to students asking them to vote on the day before an election resulted in a 4 percent increase in student turnout at the polls.
And young people tend to be more edgy, more creative and more fearless in their approaches to, well, everything - which can translate into interest among young people if such approaches are used in politics.
At the University of California-Davis recently, a group of students used Facebook, a social networking site, to plan a “flash mob” as a practical joke. They sent a message to users to meet at a bank of ATMs on campus at a certain time. The instructions were to break into a round of applause for the first person to withdraw money after 3:13 p.m., a time picked for no reason.
More than 3,000 people showed up.
On-campus activists plan to use that same tactic in the next couple of weeks - only this time, the hope is that thousands of attendees will suddenly, randomly hold up balloons that say, “Vote on Feb. 5.”
DC for Obama uses a database called “Build the Hope” which allows members to do outreach from home - and that’s helped Obama’s Washington-based supporters send about 21,000 e-mails and make more than 5,000 phone calls to supporters in the area, said organizer James McBride.
MoveOn.org just announced the creation of several new online tools for more political action. One is VotePoke.com, which borrows a term from Facebook’s “Poke!” application that began as a way to flirt with another user. The site will let users check whether family and friends are registered to vote, and if not, send them an e-mail encouraging them to get registered.
Another one is the Call Congress Blog Widget that can be put up on social networking pages, blogs or Web sites and will dial politicians’ offices directly from a user’s phone, simply after users type in their phone numbers.
The fact that all this online political activity is user-driven and, by nature, dominated by young people, only makes it more credible to that historically neglected group of voters, Burstein said.
“That’s one of the things that’s really different about Internet and new media and social networking as it relates to politics,” he said. “It’s more interactive and much more peer-to-peer, and young people respond to that better.”
(Dallas Morning News correspondent Brendan McKenna in Washington contributed to this report.)
CAMPAIGN GOES ONLINE
24 percent: share of the public that regularly learns something about the 2008 presidential campaign from the Internet
13 percent: proportion that did in 2004
42 percent: share of 18- to 29-year- olds who regularly learn something about the campaign from the Internet
15 percent: those 50 and older who do
27 percent: share of 18- to 29-year-olds who get campaign news from social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace
1 percent: those age 40 and older who do
SOURCE: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
NEW HAMPSHIRE NUMBERS
A breakdown of the youth vote in New Hampshire:
43 percent of voters younger than 30 voted in New Hampshire.
Among Democrats, Barack Obama easily won among voters ages 18 to 24. Hillary Rodham Clinton edged him out among voters 25 to 29 years old.
Among Republicans younger than 25, John McCain beat out Mitt Romney. But among those 25 to 29, Ron Paul edged into second place behind Mr. McCain.
SOURCES: Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, exit polls