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The Nation

Study Finds a Graying of the American Electorate

October 20, 2002|From the Washington Post

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 voting habits.

The study shows that young adults hold beliefs 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.

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, attempts to capitalize on the potential young vote are rare.

The themes that politicians are emphasizing this season are evident in the advertisements that Wichita, Kan., 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 axiom: Campaign funds are used to target people who are going to vote.

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