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December 28, 1999 Contact: Eric Anderson (617) 495-8269

Young Adults Largely Ignoring Presidential Campaign

Poll Results: Age Breakdowns

Young adults are paying almost no attention to the presidential campaign. During any given week since mid-November, approximately half of adults under 30 were paying no attention at all to the campaign. Another 40% were paying "only a little" or "just some" attention.

Since early November, the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government has tracked public interest in the campaign through a weekly national survey of approximately 1000 respondents. The findings indicate that young adults are only half as likely as those over 30 to be paying close attention to the campaign. They are also much less likely to be thinking about the campaign and talking about it with others.

Young adults are attuned to some aspects of American life. In the Shorenstein Center Poll of December 15-19, they were slightly more likely than older adults (42% to 38%) to recall having seen a news story from the past day about an entertainment figure. But election news is not receiving their attention. Young adults were only half as likely (18% to 36%) to recall a campaign news story as older adults.

Young adults are traditionally less involved with politics due to their life circumstances. But there is growing evidence that today's young people are even less politically interested than those of previous generations. The steepest decline in voter turnout over the past 25 years has been among the youngest adults. Of the eligible 18-24 year olds, 50% voted in 1972 compared with only 32% in 1996. On the other hand, turnout among those 45 and older declined only from 68% to 65% in this period.

"This presidential campaign has clearly not captured the interest of young Americans," said Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter project. "They are unexcited and uninspired by the parties and the candidates. No vision or visionary seems to move them, except perhaps a desire to share in the economic expansion."

Why are young people so politically uninvolved?

Young people are somewhat more likely to believe that the campaign won't affect their lives very much. Compared with 32% of older Americans, 25% of adults under 30 believe that the election's outcome will make "quite a bit" or "a great deal" of difference in the lives of people like themselves. However, young people are actually more likely (51% to 42%) to believe that the election outcome would have a substantial impact on the future of the country as a whole.

Young people don't feel particularly powerless in the American political system. They are as likely as older ones to claim that people like them could have "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of influence on what the government does. But they are less enthusiastic than older adults about the choices provided by the two major parties. The December 15-19 Shorenstein Center Poll found that young adults were more likely (51% to 44%) to want at least the option of a third-party candidate in the 2000 election, regardless of which candidates emerge as the major-party nominees.

"Our young citizens, like those before them, are a product of their times," says Thomas Patterson, study co-director and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard. "This generation grew to adulthood when politics was under attack, when party loyalty and civic duty were waning, and when cable TV entertainment was competing with news for the attention of young and old alike. It is not surprising that young people's political interest is lower than in past generations."

Is the Internet the answer?

Is the Internet likely to reverse the trend? The Shorenstein Center surveys indicate that younger adults with Internet access are as likely as similarly situated older adults to use the Internet to connect to news and information about the presidential campaign. For both groups, however, the typical day does not include a dose of Internet politics. Just under 10% indicated such exposure.

"Optimistic claims about the Internet," says Tami Buhr, the Shorenstein Center's research coordinator, "fail to account for people's interest in politics. Unless people, young or old, are interested in the presidential campaign, they are not likely to attend to it, even if they use the Internet regularly."

The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

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