Why the Youth Vote Matters in Iowa

Posted: December 11, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: Blog
Michel Martin and panel at Drake University. Photo by Katie Ramsey.

NPR’s Michel Martin and panel at Drake University. Photo by Katie Ramsey.

The lights dim in a crowded theater in Des Moines. A band is set up on one half of a stage and four chairs outfitted with microphones fill the other. A woman takes the floor and a crowd of mostly college-age students and young professionals cheer loudly.

If you had to guess, what would you assume this event was? A concert? A spoken-word poetry jam? An improve show? You’d be wrong on all counts. The crowd assembled that evening was there for one reason — to talk politics.

If the topic strikes you as unusual for the audience described, you’d be correct. Young people in the United States don’t have a great track record for being politically engaged, as evidenced by the graph below. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the voting rates for 18- to 24-year olds are consistently lower than any other age demographic from 1964 to 2012.

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So considering political engagement is typically pretty low among young people, what got all these young people in a theater together in Des Moines to engage in a nuanced political discussion? An individual who is quite skilled in getting people to talk about difficult topics – Michel Martin, a host of NPR’s All Things Considered. Actually, as the host of “Going There,” an NPR show dedicated to shedding light on current events and issues as discussed by the people who face them daily, difficult discussions are a part of her job description.

The topic up for discussion at this event was “Youth Voting Myths and Facts,” which essentially boiled down to one question — how to tackle the apathy we always hear about in young people. Martin moderated a panel of politically engaged youth in Iowa, featuring questions pulled from the audience and followers on Twitter.

Throughout the evening it became obvious that the people on stage and in the audience were not the “apathetic youth” being discussed. In fact, in comparison to the rest of the country, young people in Iowa are some of the most engaged in the country.

In 2012 the national voting rate among 18- through 29-year olds was 45 percent while the voting rate in Iowa among the same age group was 57.1 percent, the fifth-highest in the country.

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As an Iowan, it feels good to look at this list and see my state close to the top. But when I really look at the numbers, this data starts to look sad pretty quick. What we see here is that, even in the most engaged states, only about half of eligible young voters are actually voting.

“Politicians pay attention to people who show up and not a lot of young people do. It’s a difficult situation because if young voters feel as if no one is listening, they don’t show up. And if they don’t show up, no one listens to them,” Drake University politics professor Rachel Paine Caufield said.

But why is this a problem? Many young people today feel the political process is ineffective and find ways to pursue their goals and improve their communities outside the scope of government. But according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement, voting matters for several reasons, especially in Iowa.

First of all, voting is habit-forming so citizens who don’t vote now are less likely to vote as adults. Additionally, the youth vote has the potential to have a powerful voice in the election process since the 46 million young people in the U.S. today who are eligible to vote make up 21 percent of the population. But only about half these people show up to the polls. For comparison, there are only about 39 million seniors (65 and older) but considering the fact that 72 percent of them turned out to vote in 2012, they command more attention from candidates.

Now let’s take those numbers down to the caucus level, looking specifically at the tight Republican caucus results between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney in 2012. After a bit of controversy, Santorum won 29,839 votes and Romney won 29,805 votes. That left 34 votes separating the frontrunners. Young people don’t vote because they don’t see their impact on the system. They don’t think their vote counts.

But 34 people drew the line between success and defeat in 2012. That’s influence. The people who showed up that day set the tone for the rest of the election cycle. And that, young people, is why it matters to show up.

IMG_1217Ramsey is a senior public relations major with a concentration in politics. She is a proud Iowan who watches too much SNL and is the only journalism student in recorded history without a coffee habit. Follow her on Twitter.