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The Outlet is the Option, A Thesis Time Capsule: Chapter 2. Literature Review

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I focused my literature review on youth voter turnout, youth voter choice, and the potential impact of "new media" and other factors on both of these data points. Upon reviewing the historical turnout data, I was eager to compare youth voter turnout rates since 2004. According to CIRCLE, the 18-29 year-old turnout rates were:

  • 51% in 2008
  • 45% in 2012
  • 50% in 2016

So with the exception of 2012, the turnout youth rate has remained around 50 percent and has not fallen to the record lows of 1996 and 2000. Youth vote choice has strongly favored the Democratic party candidate in recent elections, much more so than in the 20th century when a majority of youths favored Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1984 and 1988 respectively.

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I suspect that news consumption habits among this new crop of youth voters could also be a predictor of vote choice. I'll explore that hypothesis in a future post.

Chapter 2. Literature Review

The News Media & Political Socialization

Most of the existing research on youth voting behavior has focused more on participation than vote choice.  Between the 1972 presidential election, the first in which 18 year-olds could legally vote, and the 2000 presidential election, the percentage of 18 to 29 year-olds who turned out to vote dropped by 12 points (Donovan and Lopez 2002).  It was understandably more important to determine which factors were contributing to this decline in participation than to discover what motivated the decreasing percentages of youth voters to support a particular candidate (See Appendix B – Figure 2.1).  Historically, a young person’s decision to vote has been closely linked with several factors, among them: education, general interest in public affairs, and a feeling of political efficacy. “Jeffersonian democracy presumes that all citizens are equal, but this is no more true with regard to political information than in any other sphere…a political system must socialize its youths to become adult citizens” (Chaffee and Frank 1996, 55).  Ultimately, the dissemination of political information is necessary for the political socialization of youth.

Television is the primary medium for political socialization of modern youth.  Research has shown that most youths’ earliest political memories involve the television.  When children reach adolescence, they divide as news consumers into readers and non-readers.  The readers retain their interest in politics and more regularly vote.  However, the importance of television in politically socializing American youth should not be overlooked.  According to Steven Chaffee and Stacey Frank, “Television provides a necessary bridge in development from the child who is innocent of the political world to the adult reader well versed in the issues of politics…Today’s young adults, reared on television, seem to be learning more from that medium than did earlier generations” (Chaffee and Frank 1996, 56).

Rod Hart believes in television’s power to inform, but not its power to mobilize the electorate.  In Seducing America, Hart argues that television overly politically socializes viewers into a state of zombie-like inaction.  In Hart’s America, “television provides viewers with so much vicarious political experience that they often feel too tired to vote … Even at home, in an overstuffed chair, watching politics can be draining” (Hart 1999, 105).  Television leaves people feeling fulfilled, as if they had participated in the political process, without actually entering a voting booth.  Hart explains the phenomenological approach to this phenomenon: “It assumes that if television is a narcotic, it is an upper.  It may produce political lethargy but it does not necessarily produce feelings of lethargy.  Like cocaine, political television feels empowering” (Hart 1999, 106).

No matter what medium was their prime socializing force, young voters who grew up in post-Watergate America were subject to an age of scandal reporting and fading political interest.  Furthermore, the post-baby boomer generations (born during the early 1960s and on) had no defining issue during their collective childhoods that would motivate future civic engagement.  By the time these generations reached voting age, they were considerably distrusting of politicians.  According to Harvard political scientist Thomas E. Patterson’s survey research, this mistrust translated into non-voting: “Among our respondents thirty-four years of age and younger, those who agreed that ‘most politicians are liars or crooks’ were 17 percentage points less likely to vote in 2000 than those who disagreed” (Patterson 2002).

Patterson also places some of the blame for non-voting on declining campaign coverage.  During the 2000 election campaign season, the Vanishing Voter Project traced political activism and discussion among potential voters.  They found that people talked more about the campaign when network news coverage was greater.  Patterson concluded, 

If the coverage in 2000 had been as heavy as it was in 1992, people would have talked and thought more about the campaign.  As a result, they also would have been better informed about the candidates and issues.  Turnout might also have been marginally higher in 2000 if the news coverage had been heavier. Our surveys indicate that, as campaign involvement increases, the number of people who say they intend to vote also increases (Patterson 2002, 91).

Patterson has thus demonstrated that an increase in negative political coverage and a decrease in overall campaign coverage have led to lower turnout in presidential elections.


Youth Voting 1972 to 2000


The subject of the youth vote was not always so bleak.  During the 1972 campaign season, some academics predicted that the newly enfranchised 18 to 20 year-olds would effect sweeping change across the American political landscape.  Then University of Pennsylvania political scientist Louis M. Seagull hypothesized that youth voter behavior would break from two widely held assumptions: 1) Young voters will participate at a lower rate than other age groups, and 2) Youth voters will tend to vote in step with their parents (Seagull 1971, 89).  Seagull grouped the 11 million potential new voters as part of a political generation, much like the youth voters of the 1930s.  He wrote, “The young voters of the 1930s voted Democratic more than older voters did and, more importantly, retained this Democratic identification and loyalty down through the present.  It is likely that the disproportionate effect of the Vietnam War on the lives and consciousness of contemporary youth will produce another political generation” (Seagull 1971, 90).  This generation, Seagull argued, would not likely behave in a partisan manner, but rather in an ideologically liberal and decidedly independent fashion (Seagull 1971, 90). 

Seagull supported his arguments with data on education and political participation.  According to 1970 census data, the percentage of 20 to 24 year-olds who had attended at least one year of college had risen from 23.7 in 1960 to 37.5 in 1970.  Education seemed to make all the difference in voting participation among young voters.  In the 1964 presidential election, 52.2 percent of 21 to 24 year-olds voted, but 78.9 percent of 21 to 24 year-olds who had spent four or more years at college voted.  These trends in increased education levels and heightened levels of participation of those who have received higher education were adequate predictors for youth participation in the 1972 presidential election (Seagull 1971, 91-2).  Furthermore, Gallup Opinion Index data on party identification among college students highlighted a trend toward independence.  From 1966 to 1970, the percentage of college students who identified themselves as independent rose from 39 to 52 percent (Seagull 1971, 93).  This apparent trend away from partisanship could have been a reaction to both parties’ majority support for continuing the war in Vietnam.  College students, who by and large favored withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, perhaps felt their views were out of step with either party.  Seagull concluded that this “present malaise with the political parties is but an early manifestation of a new revolution of rising nonpartisan but serious political interest whose full course has yet to run” (Seagull 1971, 96).

The estimated youth voter turnout from the 1972 presidential election validated Seagull’s predictions, at least for the short term.  According to the Census Bureau’s November Current Population Survey, 58 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds voted in the 1972 election (Lopez and Donovan 2002, 2).  However, the percentage of youth voters significantly dropped off over time.  In the 1976 presidential election, the first post-Watergate, 52 percent of youths voted.  Since then, the percentage has largely dropped: 50 percent in 1980, 51 percent in 1984, 46 percent in 1988, 54 percent in 1992, 44 percent in 1996, and 46 percent in 2000.  With the exception of 1992, the youth vote has been hovering below 50 percent since 1988.

While the generation described by Seagull continued to participate in the democratic process, albeit with shifting policy preferences, the generations that followed have been significantly less politically engaged.  Potential young voters have largely remained inactive in presidential elections for the same reasons cited more than 30 years ago (Converse with Niemi, 1971).  Eighteen to 29 year-old citizens are still in the midst of completing formal education, finding meaningful employment, seeking life partners, and choosing where to settle.  These “start-up” problems have taken priority over keeping abreast of public affairs and voting.  According to the 1996 National Election Survey, only 13 percent of young adults said they kept themselves informed on public affairs “most of the time,” and 50 percent confessed that they paid little attention to governmental matters (Bennett 1998, 538).  These numbers are striking when compared to their counterpart in 1972 when 31 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds said they closely followed public affairs (Bennett 1997, 49).  Given these numbers, it is almost surprising that youth voter turnout did not drop below 40 percent in 1996.


1992: Explaining the upswing


Sometimes an explanation can be found in the exception.  What happened in 1992 that sparked a rise in turnout?  One general rule, which does not require a particularly scientific explanation, is this: People vote when things aren’t going well.  For youth voters, “things” usually amount to a war and/or the economy.  In 1972, the majority of voting youths were dissatisfied with the seemingly endless Vietnam War.  This issue was central in the McGovern campaign and surely was a major factor in most youth’s decision to vote.  In 1992, the nation was in the middle of a recession.  Just as war can directly affect young people via the draft, a tanking economy can diminish young people’s ability to find and maintain employment.

The introduction of a popular third party candidate also sparked excitement among young voters. Texas billionaire Ross Perot announced in 1992 on the Larry King Live show that he would run for president if popularly drafted.  According to a study by Martin Wattenberg, Perot’s candidacy accounted for about 60 percent of the overall increase in turnout in 1992 (Patterson 2002, 86). Stephen Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter explained, “Perot’s presence in the 1992 race gave Americans an unusually strong third option in that presidential election and that drew some people to the polls who would otherwise have been nonvoters” (Farnsworth and Lichter 2003, 147).  A groundbreaking media strategy figured heavily into Perot’s campaign and success in the general election.  His appearances on Larry King yielded him positive news coverage, and his paid network television infomercials were popular with the public (Farnsworth and Lichter 2003, 147). Perot had tapped into the new media, and it would spark a revolution in campaign communication.

The phenomenon of “new media” was manifesting during the 1992 election campaign season. The contenders for the highest office in the land went beyond the mainstream media to court voters and disseminate their messages to the public.  Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing on the Arsenio Hall Show, Ross Perot’s electronic town hall, and George Bush’s interview on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show – these examples signified the politicians’ willingness to embrace new media and new media’s ability to crossover from pure entertainment to the political.  These new media, defined by Richard Davis and Diana Owen as “mass communications forms with primarily nonpolitical origins that have acquired political roles,” include, but are not limited to, talk radio, entertainment-oriented television programs, and the Internet (Davis and Owen 1998, 7).

In 1992, new media breathed life into the political process in part because of their entertainment-oriented nature.  Talk shows are entertainment forums.  They communicate information to their audiences, but ultimately, they favor the entertainment value above all else.  “Thus (they) must respond to entertainment imperatives far more than political ones” (Davis and Owen 1998, 71). Because they are primarily profit-driven, new media are forced to be creative and full of life – in a word, vital.  When new media delve into the political, they do not lose their animated character. MTV’s famous “Choose or Lose” debate in 1992 concentrated on issues that were important to young voters, including jobs, gun control, and Clinton’s choice of underwear.  Whether Clinton wore boxers or briefs may not have won over any voters, but it was certainly entertaining and sparked much conversation.  After winning the 1992 election, Clinton and Al Gore publicly thanked MTV at the MTV Inaugural Ball for helping secure the youth vote (Davis and Owen 1998, 224).

Clinton clearly mastered the use of the new media, and he also unsurprisingly won the youth vote. According to Patterson, “After the election, Bill Clinton said that future candidates would be ‘crazy’ not to make use of the new media to the extent that he and the other candidates had in 1992.  The talk and interview shows gave the candidates a chance to get their message across to the voters” (Patterson 1993, 26).  Perhaps most importantly, this message was not funneled through the increasingly negative mainstream media.  Youth voters, who have been primed to distrust politicians and associate them with scandal and sleaze rather than noble service and progress, now had an opportunity to view office seekers through the softened lens of Larry King Live or MTV town hall meeting.  Some evidence suggests that Clinton might have been correct in recognizing the new media’s influence on his election.  Ninety percent of the million voters that the recording industry’s Rock the Vote registered in 1992 actually turned out to vote, and the organization claims to have caused a 20 percent increase in youth voter turnout in 1992 (Van Zoonen 2005, 44).

These positive results suggest that new media actually bring new people into the political process.  On any given day, talk radio reaches 12 to 25 percent of the U.S. population.  Though the majority of talk radio listeners maintain a weak sense of political efficacy, the fact that they are listening to political discourse can inspire participation in the process.  The information that talk radio listeners receive may not be completely factual, but talk show hosts are not public servants.  They are entertainers who may be responsible for mobilizing some voters through exchanges with callers and extended monologues on political issues.

While the political effects of talk radio can be disputed, the Internet has certainly proven its power to efficiently organize activists.  Bruce Bimber believes that the Internet’s ability to stimulate offline activism makes it stand apart from other new media.  In Information and American Democracy, Bimber explains how the Libertarian Party used the information infrastructure in 1999 to successfully protest the FDIC’s “Know Your Customer” regulations.  “The aggressiveness and extent of the Internet-based campaign – not the clout of the Libertarians themselves – successfully signaled to agency officials as well as legislators that baking privacy could be a significant electoral issue” (Bimber 2003, 3-4).  Not only does the Internet hold the power to mobilize collective action, but it changes the concept of how such action should be organized.  Bimber suggests the new phenomenon is “collective action increasingly dissociated from traditional political resources and infrastructure” (Bimber 2003, 8).  By allowing individual citizens to become information conveyers and news makers, the Internet redistributes political power.

Critics of new media find fault with the overemphasis of the entertaining in lieu of the substantive or factual.  The flaw of this argument, however, is the inability to recognize that the entertainment features of new media are what attract consumers.  Once lured in by the entertainment, these consumers are more open to political rhetoric.  A more appropriate criticism would be that new media do not share the same standards of practice with the traditional media, and can therefore be used to mislead the public.  Nevertheless, new media have proven their power to revitalize politics.  

Of course, the new media were still growing and prospering in 1996, the year of the lowest youth voter turnout to date.  Some contend that the new media were no longer “new” in 1996, Perot had lost viability as a candidate, and Clinton seemed to have a lock on the election.  As mentioned before, campaign coverage was lower in 1996 than it had been in previous elections.  Whatever the case, the trends of the media in any given election year cannot solely account for turnout, nor can they necessarily demonstrate a statistically significant relationship with turnout.  


Youth Vote Choice 1972 to 2000


Youth vote choice in presidential elections from 1972 to 2000 was varied, with a plurality of youth most often supporting the winner of the popular vote.  This was the case in 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000.  The two closest races for the youth vote were 1980 and 2000.  In each of these races, a plurality of youths voted for the Democratic candidate.  However, during the 1980s, the youth vote tended to favor the Republicans.  Ronald Reagan won the youth vote by almost 20 percent in 1984, roughly the same margin Clinton won by in 1996 while also running for his second term.  Youths have also shown support for independent candidates, most notably John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 (CIRCLE 2004, 3).

Media outlet usage could serve as a statistically significant predictor of vote choice.  According to Chaffee and Frank, “a dramatic political event can destabilize a person’s structure of political opinions and activities.  This may lead to information seeking in order to establish a new equilibrium” (Chaffee and Frank 1996, 56).  For the current crop of American youth, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the ongoing War in Iraq have both led to increased political interest and information seeking.  This increased reliance on the news media to deliver facts and analysis about politics and policy to potential youth voters makes the media habits of these voters crucial.
 

Brian PagelsComment