Young, plugged in and Democrat

by Joni Balter

Seattle Times (MCT)

25 May 2007


While everyone else is focusing on Bush incompetence and the red-state/blue-state standoff, a more significant and quiet revolution is under way among younger voters. They are identifying more and more with the Democratic Party.

In an effort to classify the newest generation of voters, researchers say obvious things about those now ages 18 to 25. These so-called Gen Nexters rely heavily on technology and the Internet. Knew that. They maintain close contact with parents and family. Figured that. They wear a ton of tattoos. Yes, of course.

What most people may not realize is how noticeably these people are moving away from the Republican Party, compared with the same age group 20 years ago, which was much more comfortable with the GOP.

Forty-eight percent of Gen Next identify more with the Democratic Party while just 35 percent feel connected to the GOP, according to recent data from the prestigious, nonpartisan Pew Research Center, making this the least-Republican generation of all generations currently voting.

The 2006 midterm elections revealed a proclivity for Democrats among most voters. The tendency is to dismiss this voting bloc because younger people are notoriously lame at voting. But Pew noticed an uptick in their participation in the 2004 presidential election.

“I see the Democrats as offering a new response to a lot of issues right now,” said Mike Alston, a 20-year-old sophomore at Seattle University who’s active in Young Democrats. “Global warming is huge now among my generation. We’ve had Republicans leading both houses and the presidency and they have had no answer to global warming.”

In a telephone interview, Alston added, “The war also. I disagreed with the war from the beginning.”

The trend may be easily dismissed as fleeting sentiments, but once a voter favors a party three elections in a row, experts say, they tend to stick with that party a long time.

In a close race, these tech-savvy, tattoo-wearing folks with a painter’s palette of Day-Glo hair colors could help shape the outcome.

On the national level, these voters might not be interested in budding dynasties and loyalties. Sorry, Hillary. They want someone new, someone able to heal the rift between our nation and the rest of the world. That bodes well for Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination and perhaps for Rudy Giuliani for Republicans. Giuliani is moderate on social issues and younger voters have no patience for intolerance, bigotry or homophobic politics.

“In their political outlook they are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality,” says Pew in a January 2007 report.

A more recent Pew report about party affiliation the past 18 years says the change for all ages is more a stampede away from Republicans than a flocking to the Democrats.

Perhaps, but the table for signups for College Republicans at the University of Washington does not sit idle. Jake Foxcurran, vice president of the group, says there may be more leftists on campus but his organization is quite strong. Max Wagner, president of Young Democrats, believes the campus is far more Democratic than Republican, citing the several dozen students who attend weekly meetings. Republicans probably have a few less.

Washington voters don’t register by party but conventional wisdom says the breakdown is typically a version of Neapolitan ice cream - one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, one-third independent. Independents are trending D right now.

For younger voters, it is not that hard to explain. Students coming of age are often a product of the moment in which they become politically aware. It makes sense for them to self-identify with a party that speaks to their concerns.

Numerous people who became politically active in the 1980s and 1990s were drawn in large numbers to the politics of Ronald Reagan, avuncular, lovable and a powerful spokesman for bedrock Republican principles of fiscal conservatism and small government.

Generation Next experienced something altogether different. They came of age as George Bush was bumbling through the war, trashing America’s image worldwide and spending like a crazy man.

Candidates hoping to do big business in 2008 should carefully observe the voting tendencies of these younger voters. They are socially tolerant, open-minded about race and gay issues, and they grow angrier all the time about the fighting in Iraq.


Joni Balter is a columnist for the Seattle Times. Readers may send her e-mail at jbalter AT seattletimes.com.

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