Some of them live in fear of becoming the Insolvent Generation. Whether mustering for debate parties or camping out overnight in Ohio to register and vote early, they are the coming-of-age vanguard of young people scared to death about the future of the economy.
“I think we’re the first generation in a long time that is not sure we’re going to have it better than our parents did,” said Cory Struble, a senior and president of the George Washington University College Democrats.
The economy has always been important to young voters, Mr. Struble said, but it has been taken to a new level in recent weeks, becoming the new No. 1 issue.
He mentioned the student loan crisis as one of the immediate ramifications for college students of the greater economic downturn.
Last week, red and blue tablecloths drew clear battle lines at GWU’s debate-watching party, but there was one thing college students could agree on: whether Democrat or Republican, young voters are concerned about the economy.
The GWU College Democrats and College Republicans joined to host a viewing party for the first presidential debate, and will do so for the next two debates, including Thursday’s face-off in St. Louis between vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin, first-term Republican governor of Alaska, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, in their sole clash before the Nov. 4 election.
Though the topics in the first presidential debate were national security and foreign relations, the economy was certainly on candidates’ and voters’ minds, as both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain had spent time in Washington in the days leading up to the debate helping craft an economic bailout plan.
Nearly half of the first debate focused on the candidates’ views on the economy and how the current financial crisis would affect their governing. That surprised Brand Kroeger, senior and chairman of the GWU College Republicans, who said he was pleased to see that such an important issue was recognized and discussed despite being absent from the agenda.
“The vast majority of college students are looking at the next steps in their lives, and they put their faith in the American economy to have jobs,” Mr. Kroeger said.
A key concern for young voters is how likely they are to find jobs when they graduate. A September poll showed that 41 percent of young voters want the new president to address the job market, particularly for college students, when he takes office, said Rock the Vote spokeswoman Stephanie Young.
Rock the Vote calls itself a “progressive” organization that uses music and other aspects of popular culture to encourage young people become politically active and vote.
“I think it’s a priority, policy-wise,” said freshman Geoffrey Lyons, though he added that the economy shapes so many things that it is always a major issue.
The Career Center at American University has found more students worried about the economy than in previous years. “There are definitely some concerned students,” said Bridget O’Connell, the center’s director of outreach and marketing.
AU finance professor Gerald Martin said the economic crisis comes up nearly every day in his classes, but he tries to stay away from the politics of the bailout proposals before Congress.
On college campuses in the nation’s capital, however, keeping politics out of the economy is easier said than done — even without the current crisis.
The economy affects young voters differently than other demographic groups, said Ms. Young of Rock the Vote. “They’re starting and they’re trying to build their life,” she said.
The 2008 election has brought a record number of young voter registrations and an expected record turnout on Election Day, Ms. Young said. Youthful voter participation increased by 9 percent to 49 percent from the 2000 election to the 2004 election, Rock the Vote statistics show.
If all 44 million young people eligible to vote in the 2008 election registered and voted, Ms. Young said, their numbers would rival the nation’s baby boomers.
“They’ll definitely help decide who the next president of the United States will be,” she said. “They’re not discouraged or feeling that their vote doesn’t count.”
For all of the influence that young voters are purported to have, Mr. Lyons acknowledged that he does not expect his political views to remain the same after college.
“No matter how much anyone thinks they know at my age, you’re just 18,” he said.
Regardless of whether their opinions will change in the next four years, young voters are expected to be heard in November, though Ms. Young said there is decidedly more in common between young voters and older voters than in previous elections.
She said there used to be a few issues that were limited to the younger demographic, but this year there seems to be more uniformity of voters deciding what the important issues are, especially regarding the economy, which affects everyone.
“I think they definitely understand that something huge is going on,” Ms. Young said.