Half the soldiers killed in Vietnam weren’t old enough to vote. The monumental injustice of that triggered the adoption of the 26th amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18. Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield noted that his leadership role in lowering the voting age was perhaps his proudest achievement in his long life of public service. In guiding the legislation through the U.S. Senate, Mansfield said, “At 18, 19 and 20 young people fight our wars. I think they have earned the right to vote.”
Congress sent the proposed constitutional amendment to the states for ratification on March 23, 1971. I was a freshman state legislator then, and remember the excitement just six days later, when under the sponsorship of Montana state Rep. Francis Bardanouve – a close friend of Mansfield’s – Montana’s Legislature was one of the first to approve the amendment, which was adopted in record time by the necessary three-fourths of the state’s legislators on July 1.
Perhaps surprisingly, in the 1972 presidential election that followed, not quite half the 18 to 20 year olds voted. That, sadly, has been the history of the youth vote. In fact, it has never exceeded 50 percent. In 1996 about 32 percent of the 18-24 age group voted. In 2000, 36 percent did. But in 2004, in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and perhaps signaling renewed interest, 47 percent of those under 24 turned out to vote.
Politicians pay a lot of attention to health care because about three-fourths of those over the age of 65 are regular voters. Simply because young people have not voted in large numbers, political candidates have not targeted them. That is, not until Barack Obama.
Obama’s pivotal victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses came almost entirely from voters under 25 years of age. He actively cultivated them, importantly through the use of modern technology. Employing the same strategy, Obama went on to carry the youth vote by three-to-one margins in the New Hampshire and South Carolina Democratic primaries. He is counting heavily on an expanding network of college students to finally vanquish Hillary Clinton.
Obama is connecting with Montana young people, too. In mid-March I conducted a survey of 183 high school students, primarily graduating seniors, visiting their schools in Butte, Kalispell, Livingston, Whitefish, St. Ignatius and Townsend. While not particularly scientific, my survey revealed that a whopping 87 percent of the students, at least as of now, plan to vote in the November election. While that seems unlikely, the young people do rate voting as more important than helping collect food for poor people in their communities, donating blood, and assisting elementary students with reading.
If they were to vote today, those who have decided how to vote would decisively prefer McCain over Clinton by 58 to 25. They would, however, vote for Obama over McCain by a startling margin of 105 to 42. Seventy-eight of the students declared a preference for the Democratic Party, 75 for the Republicans and 30 had no party preference. McCain beat Clinton in Kalispell, Livingston, Townsend and Whitefish. Clinton prevailed over McCain in Butte, and they tied in St Ignatius. Obama overwhelmed McCain in all six locations.
After the high school surveys, I took in the Barack Obama performance on the University of Montana campus in Missoula on April 5, and had a first-hand experience with “Obamamania.” The Illinois senator’s charisma is powerful and captivating. The largely youthful crowd, estimated at over 8,000, left enthralled, energized and on fire for Obama. Fickle as the youth vote has been, if Obama is the Democratic nominee, I expect it will shatter the 50 pecent barrier this fall.
The implications of this could be significant in Montana where our people may be turning a political purple to match our mountains. A surge in the youth vote for Obama could make Montana a truly battleground state. Can the Democrats break the Republican presidential lock on the Treasure State? Maybe the kids will provide the key.
Bob Brown, former Montana state Senate president and secretary of state, is a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West
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