The nation's electorate is rapidly graying, with the cadre of older Americans who plan to take part in the Nov. 5 elections outnumbering people younger than 30 by more than 2 to 1, creating a distorted national politics in which the issues that dominate campaigns and Capitol Hill reflect an ever-smaller slice of the country.
This underrepresentation of young voters is becoming more acute: If current trends continue, the number of people 65 and older who vote in midterm elections is likely to exceed that of young adults by a 4 to 1 ratio by 2022.
These findings emerge from a study conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, which surveyed the political beliefs and behavior of Americans of different ages and created a forecast of future elections based on population patterns and recent voting habits.
The study shows that young adults hold beliefs quite distinct from those of their parents and grandparents more conservative in many of their views of government, more tolerant in many of their social values and yet are not expressing them at the polls.
The net effect is an accelerating cycle of political disengagement. "If young people don't vote, their issues don't get addressed, which further diminishes their incentive to participate in the process and keeps the downward spiral going," said Thomas Patterson, a Harvard political scientist, who studied public attitudes during the last presidential campaign. "We've got a real disconnect between the rational strategies for candidates to win elections and good strategies for maintaining a healthy democracy."
Disaffected and relatively nonpartisan, the country's 45 million young adults are a constituency-in-waiting if candidates could capture their imagination. But in the final weeks before the next elections, which will determine which party controls Congress, attempts to capitalize on the potential young vote are rare, while appeals to older people are pervasive.
Kansas case in point
The themes that politicians are emphasizing this season are evident in the advertisements that Wichita residents see on television for their local congressional race. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., has used an ad in which the congressman walks through a hospital corridor as he tells voters, "I'm working to secure prescription drug coverage for seniors, just like we fought to protect their Social Security, their Medicare and their retirement savings." His Democratic challenger, attorney Carlos Nolla, is airing an ad in which an elderly man and woman sit at a table criticizing the incumbent. "The idea to invest Social Security money in the stock market," she says, "could've wiped us out."
Those ads reflect a basic political logarithm: Campaign funds are used to target people who are going to vote. "Are people advertising on 'Buffy, the Vampire Slayer'? Absolutely not," said a GOP consultant involved in campaign strategy nationwide, and who requested anonymity. "Any political party that allocated a huge chunk of its resources for a good civic purpose (increasing the participation of young adults) would be malfeasant in its prime duty, which is to win elections."
Good, bad, indifferent
John Chiola, 27, of Goose Creek, S.C., thinks politics is "a game" and most politicians are crooks. "It's all about greed, money, who has the most power, who can manipulate who," said Chiola, a BellSouth technician. He has never voted and doubts that he ever will. "It seems pointless," he said.
Doretta Orr, 78, of Audubon Park, N.J., shares his cynicism. Orr grew up in nearby Camden and was dismayed to see "two or three mayors" from her hometown go to prison. She sees politicians influenced by vested interests, not the public good.
Does she vote? "Oh, yes," she said. "You still have to have some kind of a voice. It may not be listened to, but you have to show that you are paying attention."
Chiola and Orr stand on opposite sides of a divide: the majority of younger Americans don't vote; the majority of older Americans do.
In the 1974 off-year election, voters younger than 30 slightly outnumbered those 65 and older, based on information from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. By 1998, older voters outnumbered the young by more than 2 to 1 a chasm that is expected to expand in next month's election. Twenty years from now, fully one-third of all voters will be 65 or older, while only 8 percent will be younger than 30, according to projections based on recent voting trends.
The gap is growing partly because more people are voting into old age. Three decades ago, federal surveys show, participation in elections peaked among Americans in their mid-fifties compared with those in their early seventies this year and, probably, in their late seventies within the next two decades, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard analysis.
Losing the habit
But the trend cannot be explained entirely by changes in the country's age makeup. Although older Americans represent an increasing proportion of the population, young people still outnumber them. Even 20 years from now, when most of the large baby boom generation will have reached old age, the number of people 65 and older will only modestly exceed that of people younger than 30.
Instead, younger voters are vanishing because each generation is going to the polls less than its predecessors. In 1974, about 30 percent of all 25-year-olds voted. Next month, 23 percent are expected to vote. If those trends continue, only about 19 percent will vote in 2022. And although it is customary for some people to pick up the habit of voting as they grow older, no generation born after World War I has caught up with the ones that came before, a series of federal post-election surveys shows.
Young voters are increasingly absent on Election Day for many reasons. They are moving more frequently, and they are marrying and buying their first homes later all factors that dampen civic involvement, according to Eric Plutzer, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University. Fewer people strongly identify with either political party, and that has eroded the voting habit, Plutzer has found. Two of every five people younger than 30 described themselves as neither a Democrat nor a Republican, the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey showed, compared with about one elderly person in five.
Political cynicism is playing a part, too but younger people are no more disdainful of government.
The survey found that young, middle-aged and older people were similar in their mistrust of the government, with roughly equal percentages of each group believing that most politicians were crooks and that people like themselves had little say in government. But young people who held such cynical views were 30 to 40 percentage points less likely than older cynics to be planning to vote next month or to be registered to vote.
Even some young people who have voted wonder whether it was worthwhile. "Every year I'm less inclined to vote," said Sam M'Laker, 23, a student of criminal justice at Amarillo College in Amarillo, Tex. "I'm not going to vote this year, most likely. I wish it was like when my grandfather was alive. They took pride in voting. It was almost like a holiday. It wasn't all about (candidates) slamming their opponents."
While they are less prone to vote, younger people have distinctive ideas about what the government should, and shouldn't, do.
Privatization finds favor
In particular, younger people are more enthusiastic than older generations about privatizing what have been public responsibilities.
Nearly three in five young adults in the survey but only one-third of the elderly voters said they favored tax vouchers that would help families pay tuition at private and religious schools, an idea that President Bush has promoted but that the Democratic Senate has turned down.
Similarly, when asked what would be the best way to make it easier for elderly patients to afford prescription drugs, nearly half of all young adults said the government should help them buy private insurance. That approach was favored by less than a third of people age 50 and older, most of whom said they would prefer that the government expand Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly.
A total of 2,886 randomly selected adults nationwide were interviewed in August for the survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The most striking generation gap in ideas about the government's role, the survey found, involves the future of the nation's retirement system. Three out of five people in their 20's said Social Security should be redesigned so that workers could invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market a change favored by less than half the baby boomers and only one-fourth of people 65 and older.
Older people believe it is the federal government's job to protect retirees' well-being. The stock market "is too risky for something as important as your future," said John Wessel, 79, a retired pipe organ builder in Brattleboro, Vt.
Twana Kelley, 21, of Vacaville, Calif., is typical of her generation's emphasis on individual responsibility. "People should have the right" to manage retirement savings the way they want, said Kelley, who is staying home with her 7-month-old daughter. "It's their money. They should be able to pick and choose where it goes to, even if they end up losing it."
Those same young adults hold other attitudes that traditionally have been regarded as liberal.
People younger than 30 are the most likely to believe that gay people should be allowed to marry. They are more sympathetic to affirmative action programs that aid minorities. And when asked whether it is more important for the country to work for family values or for the rights of women, young adults are more than twice as likely as the elderly to put the emphasis on women.
Young adults say they do not see an incompatibility between conservatism and inclusiveness. Bob Paschal, 33, of Louisville, considers himself "a big traditionalist," a Republican who admires the party for creating "opportunity for individuals to better themselves." The owner of a company that makes fishing boats, he said he believes that laws should permit gay couples to get married.
Such a mingling of views could tilt the policies of the major parties if young people participated more in politics, analysts and consultants believe. Whether Democrats or Republicans stand to gain the most, however, remains uncertain.
Even as this year's candidates confront an electorate that is virtually evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, few of either party are reaching for the large pocket of would-be voters. "I think it's completely rational for your typical 18-year-old not to vote, because campaigns don't make a particular effort to contact them," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic consultant who has studied young voters.