Young Voters Are Engaged and Civil

Salena Zito
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Posted: Mar 11, 2012 12:01 AM
Young Voters Are Engaged and Civil

CLEVELAND - Sitting on a platform of temporary risers, a massive American flag covering the wall behind them, three young people anxiously awaited Mitt Romney.

"We drove all the way from Pittsburgh to hear him," said Ryan Shymansky, 18, a high school senior.

Shymansky sat between classmates Sarah Ogren and Colleen Hamilton, all barely able to contain their excitement, despite driving more than 130 miles through hail, high winds and pounding rain to see the guy they want to be the next president.

Ogren said she was impressed with the former Massachusetts governor's economic plan -- yes, she read it -- but was really impressed by how he makes decisions: "He leads with his conscience, not with religion."

Media stereotypes are created mainly because it is an easy way to give a very large audience a snapshot-understanding of behavior or people.

When it pertains to young people being excited about politics, we usually assume they must support Barack Obama.

Enthusiastic young people driving for hours to see a presidential candidate is not a phrase typically associated with Romney or campaign rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

It might be associated with Ron Paul. Yet, even then, an asterisk is placed with Paul supporters, labeling them as outcasts.

Obama supporters enjoy a rosier image, portrayed as idealistic hipsters struggling to survive as part of the "99 percent" disenfranchised by an elite 1 percent.

Now for a different take on young attitudes, from Columbus' German Village: "Just an FYI, we close in two-minutes" is not the greeting you'd expect walking into a crowded coffee shop, its patrons clustered at tables playing Scrabble or surfing shiny Macs.

Dressed in the hipster uniform of woolen cap, skinny jeans and a plaid button-down shirt with a vintage T-shirt strategically in view, the young man was clearly annoyed that he had to wait on another person so near to closing time.

Realizing he was talking to two reporters covering Ohio's primary election, the less-than-personable barista blurted out that he supports Obama.

"I graduated from Ohio State in 2009 in communications, couldn't get a job, so I started working here," he said of his coffee-shop gig. "I haven't really looked since, just kind of never left."

He blames Wall Street, not Obama, for the lack of jobs. He plans to move to San Diego, to bartend and live near the beach.

Young people strongly supported Obama's election in 2008. Not only did they vote but they volunteered, filling rallies and using social media to energize friends and family.

Today, polling shows such enthusiasm is waning.

Back in Cleveland, Shymansky said he "considered all of my options. I could have voted for Obama but, when I looked at issues that were important to me, like deficit reduction and government reform, nothing he stands for is in my belief system."

Next week, he's organizing a voter-registration drive at Fox Chapel High School, along with Ogren and Hamilton.

Their views on Obama are reflected in a Pew Center survey showing that, among young white voters, a 7-point Democrat advantage in 2008 has morphed into an 11-point GOP advantage.

Yet while Obama is slipping among voters under age 30, his approval rating still remains above 50 percent, according to Pew -- so Republicans have some work to do.

Jennifer Klein teaches the Fox Chapel students who drove here to see Romney. She says young people are much more politically active than older generations or the media understand.

"They are so energetic and excited about the process," she said, referring to interest in this year's Republican primaries. "The students are very engaged in the dialogue, they understand the nuances and importance of the issues, they care more than people really give them credit for."

And the students are civil. "Once a week we do political news," the 19-year teaching veteran said. "They discuss the issues and are completely considerate of different political views.

"I wish more adults would treat political dialogue with the respect that young people do."

Klein says excitement about coming primaries is at an all-time high.

"That, too, goes against the common thought that people are bored or tired of the elections, doesn't it?" she adds.