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Survey Suggests Young People Unengaged With Politics and Voting, Engaged with Social Media

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, April 29 2014

New data from Harvard University's Institute of Politics finds new evidence that young people are disenchanted with government and are not enthusiastic about voting in the Midterm elections, though are enthusiastic about spending time on social media, echoing in some respects the findings of a recent Pew survey.

Overall trust of Americans between 18 and 29 in institutions such as the President, Congress, the federal government, the U.S. military, the Supreme Court and the United Nations has been trending steadily downwards since February of 2010, an analysis of the survey data shows, with the average now at 32 percent down from 39 percent.

Only 24 percent of young Americans under 30 say they will definitely be voting in the Midterm elections, down 10 percentage points since the fall.

"I think one of the things that we've seen is that a lot of young Americans, especially in 2008 with the election of President Obama looked to politics as a way to change things, and over the last six years, what they've seen is that change really takes a long a time, and I think that's led to a growing disenchantment with the political system," Alex Wirth, student chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project Committee (HPOP) said in a press call.

"Coming off the government shutdown last October, we've seen a slight rebound [from last fall] in the overall approval of both President Obama and off Congress, but ... without seeing major change on a wide range of issues, I think the less trust they have across the board in institutions...Young people are very active and engaged [with community service], but their trust in government is declining as they're not seeing the same results on the national level as they are at a community level."

Wirth suggested that those attitudes also influenced young people to turn towards entrepreneurial efforts similar to Mark Zuckerberg rather than political service. "Young Americans are looking for where they can make their biggest difference and see demonstrable solutions ... The challenge for government going forward, for our elected officials is to show that government is active and that you can make an impact and have a positive difference."

While 72 percent of respondents see community service as an honorable thing to do, 49 percent said politics has become too partisan, 46 percent said they felt they needed more practical information to get politically involved, 32 percent said running for office is an honorable thing to do, and 25 percent said politics had no relevance to their current lives.

John Della Volpe, Harvard Institute of Politics Polling Director, said that looking towards the 2014 elections, he was beginning to think the increased engagement in 2004 and 2008 was an outlier, pointing towards unique factors such as hotly-contested elections in the wake of the Bush/Gore contest and the influence of 9/11.

The survey suggested that there was higher enthusiasm about voting among young Republicans, with 44 percent of those of voted for Romney saying they would definitely vote, compared to 35 percent of 2012 Obama voters.

Noting the new Sasha Issenberg piece about the Democrats' strategy to adopt Obama models on the state level for the Midterms, one challenge for Democrats "is that a lot of these states are not states in which an infrastructure was built in '08 and in '12," said Tray Grayson, Harvard IOP Director.

"I do think that we see the younger generation of millennials swinging a little more Conservative ... with maybe a little of a Libertarian streak," said Eva Guidarini, a former HPOP student chair.

However, Grayson pointed out that "it's not like Republicans and Conservatives are that excited about voting," but rather that they are more enthusiastic relative to the even lower Democratic and Independent percentages. "Only 32 percent of young Republicans are definitely voting," Guidarina said. "That's still a very lower number and should be higher, it's just higher than the very very low 22 percent of young Democrats. I think it's less a lot of excitement about the Republican party and more disillusionment with the Democratic party and the President especially.

Della Volpe highlighted that among college students, 22 percent said they would definitely vote, while 23 said they would probably vote, a significant difference from the "probably" vote of most other subgroups. "The probably voting of college students is a place potentially where Democrats can mobilize people," he said.

Trust in Congress was at 14 percent, down four percentage points from a year ago, while in a first-time question, trust in the NSA "to do the right thing all or most of the time" was at 24 percent. Asked if they were willing to give up some personal freedom and privacy for the sake of national security, 40 percent of respondents said they agreed, while 37 percent said they disagreed. In another question, respondents were almost equally split three ways at around 32 percent over agreeing, disagreeing or neither, over whether public schools should focus more on STEM subjects at the expense of areas such as social studies and the arts.

The survey also looked at the popularity of social networks and political leanings of the platforms' users. Use of social networks was up across the board from a previous survey in the fall, with Facebook at 84 percent, Google Plus at 44 percent, Twitter at 40 percent, and Pinterest at 33 percent. Asked what platform they could not live without, Facebook was most mentioned at 24 percent compared with Google at seven percent. "Over the last couple of semesters we've seen Twitter go more mainstream, [among high school students] it's tied with Facebook as the one social network that young people can't live without, that's a significant sign relative to just a couple of semesters ago," Della Volpe noted.

Overall, the study found that 19 percent of respondents considered themselves politically engaged, compared to 81 percent who did not. Among various political activities, more respondents overall said they participated in online political activities, with 33 percent saying they had signed an online petition, 11 percent contributing to an online blog or discussion on a political subject, nine percent attending a political rally, nine percent contributing money to a political campaign and seven percent volunteering for a candidate or cause.

On Facebook, 28 percent said they had liked a political issue on the site, 20 percent said they had liked a candidate, 18 percent said they list a political view on Facebook and 16 percent said they had advocated for a political perspective in their Facebook status. Of Twitter users, 13 percent said they had used the site to advocate for a political position.

The survey found that Facebook and Snapchat were generally equally popular among Republicans and Democrats. At 52 percent and 46 percent, more Democrats were likely to have Google Plus and Twitter accounts, while Republicans at 40 percent were more likely to have an account with Pinterest, which student Ellen Robo noted on the press call was also more popular among women.