Young Voters and the 2000 and 2004 Bush Presidential Campaigns
Associate Professor of Political Science
Chair, American Studies
Washington, D.C. 20057
phone: (202) 687-7194
fax: (202) 687-1720
email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Director of Research
Center for Civic Education
5145 Douglas Fir Road
Calabasas, CA 91302-1440
phone: (818) 591-9321
fax: (818) 591-9330
Paper prepared for presentation at the Evaluating the George W. Bush Presidency Conference,
University of Hawaii at Hilo, July 29-31, 2009
The 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns in which Republican George W. Bush was a
candidate provide a unique context for studying the dynamics of youth voting. Young voter
turnout in the 2000 election was typically low, consistent with trends that had persisted for over
two decades. Young voters were only slightly more inclined to vote for Democratic candidate Al
Gore over Bush in that election. Outreach to young voters by both parties in this election had
been perfunctory at best. Ignited by the efforts of organizations targeting young voters and
heightened media coverage, the 2004 campaign witnessed an upsurge in youth campaign
engagement and voter turnout. Young people were distinct in their strong support for Democrat
John Kerry over Bush, while older voters had a clear preference for the Republican contender.
The attitudes and actions of Democratic and Republican campaign operatives toward
young voters in 2000 and especially in 2004 can explain, at least in part, the differences in
electoral outcomes. Republicans did not consider young voters to be an important component of
their voting base in either year, and were reluctant to engage fully a volatile electoral cohort that
might vote against their candidate. In 2004, the Republican Party and Bush campaign
implemented effective voter registration and get-out-the vote (GOTV) strategies. Their youth
outreach was carefully orchestrated to activate a narrow spectrum of young voters who were
almost guaranteed to support Bush. Democrats, while more willing to embrace young voters as
part of their coalition, lacked the strategic insight and grassroots resources to activate young
people. Their extensive use of “hired guns” rather than recruiting a cadre of dedicated young
volunteers did little to build partisan allegiances. Instead, Kerry benefited from the initiatives of
independent organizations tasked with mobilizing young voters at a time when this cohort was
disillusioned with President Bush’s policies on issues, especially the economy, jobs, terrorism,
national security, as well as the War in Iraq.
This paper explores the dynamics of youth voting in the 2000 and 2004 presidential
election. We begin by examining trends in youth voter turnout, candidate preference, and
partisanship, and address the question: How did young people vote in the 2000 and 2004
presidential elections? We then explore the ways in which young voters were conceptualized as
a cohort by party officials and campaign operatives. Partisan differences in the perception of
who constitutes young voters influenced tactics that engaged (or neglected) this cohort. Next, we
take up the question: How did the George W. Bush campaign reach out to young voters in 2000
and 2004 compared to the opposition? There is evidence that the Bush campaign courted young
voters more aggressively in 2004 than in 2000, yet Bush was less successful in gaining support
among youth in the latter campaign. Finally, we consider the factors that account for young
voters’ support for and opposition to Bush’s candidacy in each year. In particular, what issues
were important to young people in 2000 and 2004, and how did the Bush campaign respond to
these issues? The paper will conclude with speculation about how George W. Bush’s
relationship to young voters has impacted the current state of Republican Party politics. The
patterns of youth voter engagement and preference for the Democratic candidate that were
evident in the 2004 election appear to have carried over to, and in some ways were magnified in,
the 2008 presidential contest.
Data and Methods
In order to explore attitudes about and strategies related to youth voting in the 2000 and
2004 presidential contests, interviews were conducted with political party officials, political
consultants, youth voting leaders, and journalists. The interviews were designed to elicit the
subjects’ views about the importance of youth voting, the strategies employed to court young
voters, the type of information that was most useful to young voters, and the media tactics that
were successful in reaching young voters. A total of 61 semi-structured interviews were
conducted between March 20 and September 9, 2005. Much of the analysis presented here relies
on 44 interviews with party officials and campaign consultants. Sixteen party officials were
interviewed, consisting of eight from each party. These included state party directors, campaign
managers, and members of Congress who were advocates for youth voting within their
respective parties. Interviews were conducted with 28 political campaign consultants, twelve
Republicans, fourteen Democrats, and two who worked for candidates on both sides of the aisle.
Fourteen youth voting leaders and three journalists also were interviewed. A trained research
team conducted the interviews. They spoke to the subjects either by phone or in person, tape
recorded the interviews, and transcribed them verbatim. The transcripts were content coded to
facilitate systematic analysis.
Press coverage is a meaningful gauge of the extent to which youth voting is treated as a
key element of an election campaign. In order to assess the nature and quantity of youth voting
coverage in 2000 and 2004, a content analysis of the 27 top circulation newspapers was
conducted. The analysis covered the period from April 1 to November 30 in each year. Articles
were included in the study if they contained any significant reference to youth voting. Trained
coders analyzed a total of 1,450 articles, representing the entire population of youth voting
articles in these newspapers. The primary unit of analysis was the article. Every sentence within
an article was counted; sentences that pertained specifically to youth voting were coded. Articles
were categorized as being entirely about youth voting, as significantly (50% or more) related to
the youth vote, or as mentioning youth voting in passing. Stories were coded for their tone,
quality, and content, allowing for comparisons to be made across the two election cycles.
The Youth Vote in 2000 and 2004
Historically, young voter turnout has been significantly lower than turnout for older
citizens. As Figure 1 illustrates, there is a consistent and substantial gap between the overall
turnout rate among the voting age population and voting among 18 to 24 year oldsi
. Turnout for
this cohort reached a high of close to 50% in 1972, the first presidential election in which 18 year
olds could vote. The youth vote was notably lower during the subsequent three decades,
averaging around 38%, with a slight uptick in 1992 to 43%. In 1996, only 32% of young voters
cast a ballot, marking an all-time low (Marcelo 2008; Jamieson 2002). The gap between the
turnout rate for all voters and 18 to 24 year olds appears to have closed somewhat in the 2008
presidential contest. Evidence suggests that while turnout among eligible voters declined
slightly in 2008, the increase for young voters may over six percentage points (McDonald 2008).
Total Voter and Young Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections, 1972-2008
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (1972-2004 data); Kirby, 2009 (2008 data)
18‐24 year olds
100 18‐24 year olds
Turnout in the 2000 presidential election was only slightly higher than in 1996 at
approximately 55%. As Table 1 indicates, participation among 18 to 24 year old voters
increased to 36%, a gain of four percentage points over the previous election, but this rate was
hardly impressive. Turnout among 18-29 year olds was only slightly better at 40% (Marcelo
2008; McDonald 2008; Jamieson 2002).
Based on the voting age population, voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election
increased to 57%, a gain of approximately two percentage points over the rate in 2000 (Federal
Election Commission 2005). An alternative method of computing turnout which employs
eligible voters finds a six percentage point increase from 54% in 2000 to 60% in 2004
(McDonald 2008). There were approximately seventeen million more votes cast in 2004 than in
the previous election. Both candidates received more votes than any other in history, including
Ronald Reagan, due to a growing electorate, heightened turnout, and the lack of a strong-
performing third party candidate (Committee for the Study of the American Electorate 2005).
There was a notable upsurge in youth voting, as almost 47% of 18 to 24 year olds and 49% of
those under age 30 went to the polls (Marcelo 2008; Holder 2006). The nine to ten percentage
point rise in youth voting over the 2000 turnout rate marked a significant turning point. Young
people’s electoral participation continued its uphill trajectory in the 2008 presidential contest.
Still, young voter turnout in both years trailed considerably behind the rate for voters over age
30. (See Table 1.)
Turnout Percentage by Age in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections
Citizen Population 59.5% 63.8%
18 to 24 years
18 to 29 years
25 to 34 years 50.5% 55.7%
35 to 44 years 60.5% 64.0%
45 to 54 years 66.3% 68.7%
55 to 64 years 70.1% 71.8%
65 to 74 years 72.2% 73.3%
75 years and over 66.5% 68.5%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
The 2000 presidential election played out without much fanfare until the final stage,
when the outcome remained in the balance. Early predictions and forecasting models envisaged
that Al Gore would be the likely winner as he benefitted from the strong economy that the
Clinton administration had enjoyed. In addition, 33% of registered voters were Democrats
compared to 24% who were Republicans. Yet, Gore failed to capitalize on the economy and his
partisan support was soft (Johnston 2004). The campaign and the candidates generated little
enthusiasm among voters. Survey data indicated that voters felt that Bush trumped Gore on
personal qualities, while Gore had greater command of the issues. However, less than 50% of
the electorate believed that either candidate was likable, honest, or trustworthy, could get things
done, could exercise judgment in a crisis, or was qualified to be president (Pew Research Center
for the People & the Press 2000a). Pre-election polling and media speculation suggested that the
2000 contest was too close to call as Election Day drew near (Pew Research Center for the
People & the Press 2000b).
The 2000 presidential campaign was the closest election in American history. Gore won
the popular vote by a scant margin of 543,895 votes (Federal Election Commission 2001).ii
outcome was not decided until nearly five weeks after Election Day on November 7. Achieving
a majority in the Electoral College hinged on the results in the state of Florida which were too
close to call and highly contested, prompting a recount of votes in several counties. The
Supreme Court halted the recount of the Florida votes on December 12, essentially awarding the
election to George W. Bush (Ceasar 2001; Sabato 2002).
The 2004 presidential election, which took place in the aftermath of the September 11,
2001, terrorist attacks, generated a higher level of interest among voters of all ages than the 2000
contest. The public was concerned about the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, issues that
were far more salient than those in the previous campaign. Once again, pre-election polls
indicated that the race was tight, although most predicted that Bush would win. Despite the fact
that registered Democrats (37%) continued to outnumber registered Republicans (28%)
(Committee for the Study of the American Electorate 2005), Bush supporters favored their
candidate more strongly than Kerry backers (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
2004). In addition, the controversy surrounding the outcome of the closely contested 2000
election caused some people to value their vote more, compelling them to get to the polls (Egan
2004). Young voters benefited from massive registration and get-out-the vote efforts, especially
those conducted by non-profit, non-partisan organizations. Voters’ knowledge of the candidates
and issues was higher than in other recent elections (Owen 2005).
The 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns marked the only times since 1972 that young
voters’ candidate choice deviated from the general population, and they did not support the
winner of the election. In 2000, George W. Bush gained 47.87% of the vote, Al Gore received
48.38%, and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader earned 2.76%. Eighteen to 29 year old voters
preferred Gore (48%) over Bush (46%), while 5% of young voters favored Ralph Nader. In this
tight contest, 49% of voters over age 30 cast their vote for Bush compared to 48% for Gore. It is
interesting to note that 49% of young voters backed Democratic congressional candidates in
2000, which surpassed their support for the party’s presidential contender (Marcelo 2008). Bush
received a higher share of the popular vote in 2004 than in 2000 with 50.7%. Kerry earned
48.3% of the popular vote, which was similar to the percentage who voted for Gore. Young
voters were far less supportive of Bush than older people in 2004. As Table 2 indicates, 45% of
young voters supported Bush while 54% backed Kerry, a difference of nine percentage points.
Bush received a slightly lower percentage of the youth vote in 2004 than he did in 2000.
Voter Preference by Age in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections
Bush Gore Nader
Bush Kerry Nader
18 to 29 years 46% 48% 5% 45% 54% --
30 to 34 years 49% 48% 2% 53% 46% 1%
45 to 59 years 49% 48% 2% 51% 48% --
60 years and over 47% 51% 2% 54% 46% --
Source: National Exit Polls
Partisan identification has long been considered the strongest predictor of vote choice in
presidential elections. Once developed, party identification remains relatively stable over time
(Young Voter Strategies 2007), although it is not immutable. It makes sense for parties to reach
out to young voters in order to bring them into the fold and potentially create lifelong
The United States historically has witnessed a series of partisan alignments whereby a
particular party has a clear advantage for an extended period, such as the three decades-long
Democratic dominance following the 1932 presidential election. By the 2000 campaign,
however, the two parties had reached a position of greater parity. In addition, the number of
persuadable voters—weak partisans, independents, and non-partisans—had grown. As a result,
the 2000 and 2004 presidential contests were more volatile than elections in previous eras
Republicans captured 59% of the 18 to 29 year old vote in the Reagan election of 1984;
52% of this group supported George W. Bush in 1988. The Democratic Party had a slight edge
in popularity over the Republican Party during the Clinton era. However, Republican Party
identifiers were more readily mobilized in the 2000 campaign (Campbell 2000; Johnston 2004).
By the 2004 presidential election, the Republican Party held a six percentage point advantage
among the general population (Kaufmann 2008).
Young people were less inclined to align with the Republicans in the Bush era than older
voters. As Table 3 demonstrates, 18 to 29 year olds who identified with or leaned in favor of a
particular party were almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans in 1992, the year
that Bill Clinton won his first presidential election against George H. W. Bush. Between 1996
and 2004, half of young voters identified with the Democrats, while the percentage affiliating
with the Republican declined. There was an eight percentage point disparity in young people’s
affiliation with the Republican Party (41%) and Democratic Party (49%) in 2000. The gap had
widened to eleven percentage points in 2004, with 51% of young people identifying with the
Democrats and 40% aligning with the Republicans. These findings are in keeping with young
voters’ preference for the losing Democratic candidate in both 2000 and 2004. The Republicans’
grasp on young voters has become increasingly tenuous in the wake of the 2008 presidential
contest, as 58% of 18 to 29 year olds identify with the Democrats and only 33% are aligned with
Party Identification of 18 to 29 Year Olds from 1992 to 2008
(Percentage of Partisan Identifiers and Leaners)
1992 46% 47%
1996 50% 44%
2000 49% 41%
2004 51% 40%
2008 58% 33%
Source: (Keeter 2008)
Who Are Young Voters?
Exactly who political campaigns and consultants consider to be “young voters” is central
to understanding their strategic decisions and their implications. The tactics used to target new
voters, especially those who have just reached voting age, are different from those aimed at
young people with prior voting experience. The youngest cohort of voters, those aged 18 to 24, is
costly for campaigns to mobilize, and is less likely than older groups to turn out. New voters
need to be registered and informed about the technical aspects of voting. They often require
innovative candidate messaging through new media platforms (Connery 2008). The payoff for
targeting first time voters may not be apparent in the short term, but it can be an effective
element of a strategy where lifetime allegiances to a political party are cultivated.
There is no clear consensus about who constitutes “young voters” among political leaders
and strategists. Interviews with party officials, candidates, and campaign consultants about the
2000 and 2004 campaign indicate wide variation in the age range used to define the young voter
cohort. While most political operatives considered young voters to be under age 30, one-third of
the interviewees felt that the label could apply to people age 35 and even older. Republican
party officials and campaign consultants were more likely to identify a broader cohort of young
voters, consisting of 18 to 35 year olds. The majority of Democrats interviewed considered the
youth vote cohort to be18 to 24/5 year olds, and all but two focused on those under age 30
Political operatives distinguished between young voters based upon a variety of criteria,
including their status as college students, technical school students, or members of the
workforce, and their stage in life, such as being unmarried and unsettled or married and
established in the community. In 2000 and 2004, college students received more attention from
candidates and parties than other young people. They are easier to target and a more likely
source of campaign volunteers than technical school students and working youth because many
colleges have extracurricular political infrastructure in place, including the college wings of the
Republican and Democratic parties. Since education is a strong predictor of voter turnout,
college students are considered to be a good investment in the future. Eighteen to 24 year olds
who attend college are more than twice as likely as their peers to go to the polls (Harvard
Institute of Politics 2005). They receive more invitations to participate, and are more inclined to
believe that government will be responsive to their needs.
Perceptions of Young Voters
There were considerable differences in the level of interest that Republican and
Democratic party officials and campaign consultants expressed in interviews about young voters
during the 2004 election. As Table 4 demonstrates, officials from both parties were more likely
than consultants to be either strongly or somewhat interested in the youth vote. Democratic party
officials were nearly unanimous in stating that they were strongly interested in young voters,
while Republicans were split between strong and moderate interest. The majority of Republican
consultants indicated that they were somewhat or not very interested in the youth vote, while the
majority of Democratic consultants stated that they were at least somewhat interested.
These distinctions can be attributed to how the two parties perceived the relative worth of
young voters to their efforts. (See Table 4.) Democratic party officials and consultants were far
more inclined to think of young voters as an important voting bloc in the 2000 and 2004
campaigns than were Republicans. While some Democrats interviewed for this study did not
consider young people to be a core constituency because of their low turnout rates, they still
believed that the youth vote was solidly in their corner. Republicans cited data indicating that
young people in elections leading up to the 2000 and 2004 contests did not comprise a strong or
reliable voting constituency for their party. They tended to consider young voters to be an
untapped constituency, while a small number felt they represented a swing voting bloc that could
influence the course of an election. Twelve of the Democratic operatives interviewed saw young
voters as segment of the party’s base, while five felt that they constituted a swing voting bloc.
Some Democrats believed that youth were an untapped constituency. Party officials believed
that Democrats could do a better job of mobilizing young voters, while some consultants debated
whether spending resources on this group was warranted given the uncertainly of the payoff.
Attitudes of Republican and Democratic Party Officials and Consultants Toward Young
Voters in the 2004 Presidential Election
(Number of Interview Subjects)
Interest in Youth Voting
Not Very Interested
Important Voting Bloc
Swing Voting Bloc
Base Voting Bloc
Reaching Out to Young Voters
Candidates and parties face considerable challenges when reaching out to youth. A good
number of young people lack basic information about how to participate, and may withdraw
from the process because they feel incompetent to take part. Young people are difficult to get in
touch with, as they are mobile and their contact information often is not readily available.
Personal methods of outreach, such as door-to-door canvassing, are complicated by the fact that
young people keep irregular schedules and may not be home when canvassers come to call.
There are additional barriers to reaching college students, who may be discouraged by election
officials from registering and voting using their campus addresses despite the fact that the
Supreme Court has upheld their right to do so. The Higher Education Act of 1998 mandates that
publicly funded universities ensure that voter registration forms are available to all students, but
in 2004 less than 17% of schools were in compliance (Barriers to Student Voting 2004).
While presidential candidates may be willing to court young voters, generational
differences in orientation create practical barriers to connecting with them effectively. The
messaging strategies and communication channels that work with older voters will not
necessarily resonate with younger citizens. In 2004, neither candidate ran ads that specifically
targeted young voters. However, the Kerry campaign placed ads during Saturday Night Live and
The Daily Show so that young people could be exposed to his message. The Bush campaign ran
ads only in traditional venues, and failed to attract young viewers (Bystrom 2007). Candidates’
personal styles also can preclude young voter outreach. Kerry appeared to be more comfortable
addressing young people directly than did George W. Bush. His policy rhetoric was more
specifically youth-focused than that of Bush (Howard 2007). Studies indicate that young people
are more concerned with presidential candidates’ character than specific policy plans and issues.
Further, during the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, young voters were more inclined to
vote against a candidate they disliked than for a candidate they supported strongly. John Kerry
was the beneficiary of this factor, as 13% of young voters stated that they voted specifically
against Bush (Young Voter Strategies 2006).
Outreach to young voters by parties and candidates was limited during the 2000
presidential campaign, in keeping with trends established in previous elections. Campaign
organizations were reluctant to dedicate resources to mobilizing a cohort that typically did not
turn out and whose vote choice was difficult to predict. Little effort was made to adapt campaign
tactics to appeal specifically to young voters. Organizations aimed at increasing young voter
registration, including Rock the Vote and Youth Vote Coalition, generated some awareness of
the campaign among new voters. However, they were no more active in 2000 than they had
been in the previous decade, when their influence was difficult to assess.
The 2004 presidential election marked the beginning of a new era in young voter
mobilization and engagement. In the wake of the 2000 presidential contest, independent political
organizations and non-partisan groups sought to increase youth voter activation. These efforts
were aided by a proliferation of new approaches to engaging young people creatively, including
through the use of new communications technologies. There was a substantial proliferation of
voter registration and GOTV initiatives that may have motivated over three million voters to get
to the polls (Bergan 2005). Young people were the targets of extensive marketing campaigns
urging them to participate, such as P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die”, Rock the Vote’s celebrity ads, and
Moveon.org’s online appeals. Six non-profit grassroots organizations, the New Voters Project,
Declare Yourself, Hip Hop Summit Action Network, MTV’s Choose or Lose: 20 Million Loud!,
Rock the Vote, and the World Wrestling Entertainment’s Smackdown Your Vote!, spent $40
million on youth voting projects (Walker 2006). By some estimates, over $70 million was spent
on youth-oriented election outreach (Institute of Politics 2005).
Youth voting attracted much greater press attention in 2004 than in 2000. A content
analysis of national newspapers revealed a substantial increase in the number of articles
referencing youth voting during the 2004 presidential campaign period compared to the previous
presidential election. The top 27 circulation newspapers published 513 youth voting articles in
2000 compared to 937 in 2004, representing almost a twofold increase. The average number of
sentences referencing young voters in articles grew from 14 in 2000 to 14.5 in 2004. In addition,
the tone of coverage was more positive and less negative in 2004 than in the prior contest. As
Table 5 depicts, 42% of coverage was positive in 2004 compared to 31% in 2004. Similarly,
negative coverage declined from 20% to 13% between the two election cycles.
Percentage of Positive, Negative, and Neutral Youth Vote Coverage
in Newspapers During the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Election
Positive Negative Neutral
2000 31% 20% 49%
2004 42% 13% 45%
Similar trends are apparent for media other than newspapers. During the 2000 campaign,
young people were only covered in 2% of television news stories on CBS, NBC, and MSNBC.
There was a slight increase in youth-related stories on television in 2004, although issues
important to young people were covered to a significantly greater extent. Only a single question
asked of the candidates during presidential debates in 2000 dealt with young people—a question
about asking the candidates what they would do to better engage youth in politics that was
ducked by Bush and Gore. In 2004, Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination took
part in a debate devoted entirely to youth issues that was sponsored by Rock the Vote and CNN
The increased media interest in young voters influenced political party and campaign
organizations’ decisions to give greater consideration to young voters. Party officials and
consultants interviewed for this study were heavy consumers of election news, and they were
well aware of stories about youth voting. Three quarters these political operatives stated that
media coverage influenced their perceptions of the importance of young voters in the campaign.
The vast majority felt that youth voting received significantly more media coverage in 2004 than
in 2000, and most believed that coverage was generally positive. Democratic operatives were
more convinced of the positive tone and significance of youth vote coverage than were
Republicans. A Democratic party official provided a typical response: “I think media coverage
was more positive in 2004. Leading up to the campaign folks anticipated that the voter turnout
would be higher than normal among young voters. And I think in many places it was.” A
Republican consultant offered a more skeptical observation: “It was an important media story. I
think it fizzled. People were talking about how young voters were going to vote like crazy, and
they didn’t. I could have told them that.”
The strong mobilization efforts by independent organizations and non-partisan groups in
2004 as well as increased media coverage brought the youth vote into play to a greater extent
than in 2000 (Connery 2008). Both political parties as well as their candidates’ campaign
organizations stepped up their voter outreach efforts, but they employed markedly different
tactics. The Republicans’ approach was rooted in developing a network of volunteers with
strong personal connections to their communities. They hoped that this strategy, which was time
and resource intensive, would generate persistent and long-term connections to the party. In
contrast, the Democrats engaged a more short-term strategy that relied heavily on professionals
and “paid volunteers,” many of whom were not local to the communities to which they were
These targeting and recruitment strategies were influenced by each party’s perceptions
about the value of young voters to their cause. Republicans, who primarily viewed young voters
as an untapped constituency rather than part of their base, were selective in their activation
strategies, focusing on college students, younger professionals, and Christian youth. Democrats,
who assumed that young people were a base constituency, cast their net more widely and were
less focused in their targeting tactics.
Technical and situational factors also came into play. Because their party’s nominee was
determined early and was a sitting president, Republicans could get their youth voting operations
underway sooner than could the Democrats, who needed to devote their resources to contesting
the primaries and caucuses. In 2000, the Bush campaign initiated its youth outreach efforts three
months prior to Election Day. They began organizing young voters sixteen months ahead during
the 2004 contest.
The Republican Party made adjustments to their typical strategic operations which had
relied heavily on less personal forms of contact, especially direct mail. They sought to improve
their person-to-person outreach efforts and to build their network of grassroots volunteers,
especially in swing states. In 2002, they piloted the 72 Hour Task Force, a grassroots get-out-
the-vote initiative in preparation for the 2004 campaign. The 72 Hour Task Force established a
seven point plan designed to increase membership in the Republican Party by registering three
million new partisans before the November election, invigorating Republican coalitions,
developing absentee and early voting programs, and organizing a final three-day push to get
voters to the polls. The party achieved its voter registration goals using registration booths,
phone banks, and door-to-door canvassing. They also deployed an 18-wheeler—Reggie the
Registration Rig—to state fairs, NASCAR races, and country music events in 22 states
(Republican National Committee 2004). College Republican organizations were recruited to
work on the voter registration and GOTV projects.
The Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign actively sought to mobilize young people using
grassroots volunteer-driven tactics. They devised a popular incentive system, where young
volunteers could earn prizes for their campaign work, such as Bush campaign logo-wear. Their
efforts largely were aimed at targeted groups, particularly college students and young
evangelicals. Jordan Sukelow, an evangelical Christian, was hired as National Youth Director of
the Bush campaign. Sukelow’s goal was to create a grassroots network of young volunteers that
was coordinated with the party’s institutional infrastructure. The Bush organization’s youth
wing employed a variety of novel tactics to activate student supporters, linking the campaign to
sports and concert events. “Kick off for Bush,” an event fielded in conjunction with the
Michigan-Ohio State football game, was attended by over 150 students. The campaign launched
a “Students-for-Bush” website during the NCAA’s March Madness basketball championship.
The site featured a bracket challenge where individuals could predict which state “teams” would
register the most voters; the winners received basketballs signed by President Bush and other
rewards. This effort generated over 120,000 student volunteers (Fisher 2006). The campaign
also reached out specifically to young conservative Christian students by engaging evangelical,
pro-life, and campus ministry groups through Christian Rock concerts and campus visits by high
profile Republicans. Christian voters overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush in both
elections, accounting for approximately one third of his voting bloc. In 2004, 78% of white
evangelicals cast their vote for Bush (Broder 2008). He did even better among young
evangelical Christians, as 84% of 18 to 29 year old evangelicals were Bush voters (Dokoupil
The Democratic Party and the Kerry-Edwards ’04 campaign had more remote ties to their
grassroots base than did the Republicans. Coming off of a contested nomination campaign, the
Democrats lacked the ability to organize well in advance of the general election, and needed to
quickly deploy an efficient and reliable game plan. The Democrats outsourced much of their
voter contact enterprise, and used paid vendors and direct mail in lieu of grassroots, personalized
organizing strategies. They depended heavily on professionals and “paid volunteers,” many of
whom came from supportive constituencies, such as unemployed blue collar workers and
students, and who were paid nominal sums for their legwork. Campaign workers from blue
states were bused to swing and red states. This strategy had numerous drawbacks, as paid
volunteers tend to burn out quickly and do not develop long-term allegiances based on personal
commitments to a party or candidate. The Democratic strategy also worked through allied
organizations, such as America Coming Together, the NAACP, and the AFL-CIO (Fisher 2006).
While their efforts officially were uncoordinated, the Kerry campaign benefitted from the efforts
of youth voting organizations whose heightened groundwork was mobilizing more young voters
who were naturally inclined to vote Democratic.
Young Voters and Issues
In 2000, the top five leading issues emphasized in public opinion polls were in order,
education, health care, tax policy, social security and the economy (see Table 6). When asked,
Americans ranked social issues, including education, followed by a category termed other social
issues, various economic issues, social security/Medicare, and values/corruption/moral decay as
being most important to all voters (Miller and Klobucar 2003). However, concerns differed
widely by groups; education, for instance, was more important to democratic voters, but was
strategically emphasized by Bush to broaden his appeal. Young people cared very much about
education, but sought more specific policies, such as breaks on college tuition. Rather than
“health care,” they expressed interest in health insurance. Solid majorities of youth have also
opposed increased defense spending. To summarize, irrespective of age, social issues outranked
economic issues for all voters in 2000.
Issues Ranked by Importance for the General Population
Bush sought to galvanize his conservative base by playing to their elevated concerns
about moral decay by offering himself as the candidate to bring integrity back into the White
House. It is not clear how this resonated with younger voters following the Clinton scandals, but
it is interesting to note that a 2005 survey found that young people want politicians to be
honorable in their campaigns and actions. This includes politicians acting on behalf of their
constituents rather than for self-interest, and positive instead of negative campaigning (Harvard
Institute of Politics 2005). Emphasizing a socially conservative agenda may have cost Bush some
support among some youth, as by 2000, college freshmen had shifted leftward on a wide variety
of social issues. A 2003 survey found that 55% of all entering freshmen felt that abortion should
Major Issues of the 2000
Major Issues of the 2004
Education Terrorism/Homeland Security
Tax Policy Economy/Jobs
Social Security Iraq
Foreign Policy Abortion
Crime Gay Marriage
Size of Government Environment/Energy
Crime Civil Rights
Defense Moral Values
Ethics/Morals Social Security
Civil Rights Patriot Act
Death Penalty Defense
Oil Prices Crime
be legalized (Saenz, et al. 2004). The same study found that 59% of incoming freshmen
supported same sex marriage, and a wider majority favored greater control over the sale of
The internet was not yet widely used for campaign purposes in 2000. For November 4,
2000, Gore’s website listed the following issues (followed by many bulleted subheadings):
Building on our Prosperity, Investing in our Future (education was the first bullet point),
Strengthening Families, Fighting for Stronger, Safer Communities, Government for the People
and Maintaining the Peace. Gore’s website was complex and somewhat confusing, and offered
an overwhelming number of options to participate or to donate money to his campaign
(Gore/Lieberman: Issues 2000). By contrast, the Bush/Cheney website had one option for
people to participate, which stated: “Volunteer your help to the George W. Bush for President
campaign, and give America the leadership it deserves” (Bush/Cheney: Issues 2000). The issues
were listed on the sidebar menu and easy to find, beginning with Education, Taxes, Social
Security, Defense, and Medicare. The only issues on the Bush/Cheney site that featured more
text than Gore’s were the following: “Abstinence Education,” “Affirmative Action,” and “Life
Issues.” These socially conservative issues linked to separate pages where Bush’s positions were
spelled out in much greater detail.
Education barely edged out health care as the most frequently cited issue in 2000, both
of which were important to young voters. But by 2004, there was a decline in the percentage of
articles mentioning youth-related issues compared with 2000. Issues important to young voters
were mentioned in 37% of youth voting articles in 2000, dropping to 32% in 2004. The war in
Iraq was the issue that gained by far the most attention in 2004 in youth voting stories. Stories in
2004 focused heavily on voter recruitment and engagement efforts targeting young voters to the
exclusion of issue-related pieces. One study of evening newscasts in Iowa found that they paid
very little attention to youth voters, even though 62% voted in the election, which suggests they
were less influenced by TV news than other sources (Bystrom 2007). However, 8 out of 10
young voters said it would have helped their decision-making if a presidential candidate
appeared on MTV to discuss issues that mattered to youth, whereby Kerry obliged by appearing
on MTV and taking questions directly from young people (CIRCLE, CIRCLE/MTV: Choose or
Lose Prelection Poll Press Release 2004).
There was, however, more scholarly research during and after the 2004 election on
which issues younger voters held to be important. Youth cared about jobs and the economy,
terrorism and national security, and crime and violence (CIRCLE, National Youth Survey, 2002
2002), (CIRCLE, CIRCLE/MTV: Choose or Lose Prelection Poll Press Release 2004). Another
study identified Iraq, education, terrorism and homeland security, the economy and jobs, and
health care (Tedesco, et al. 2007). Table 6 lists the leading issue based for the general population,
which also centered on the economy and terrorism/national security.
In 2004 as well, youth sought more targeted messages from candidates on these issues in
a manner helpful to them. Younger voters expressed concern about job creation for workers just
entering the market (Tedesco, et al. 2007). Or, instead of discussing the Iraq war in broad
generalities, where did the candidates stand on the draft? Kerry did a better job of speaking
directly to the concerns of college students by discussing policies that related to their needs,
while the Bush campaign perceived young voters as part of the larger voter demographic
(Howard 2007). The Bush campaign may have been more reluctant to energize large numbers of
youth, who by 2004 were more likely to consider themselves a Democrat than a Republican
(CIRCLE 2004). Researchers also noted that concepts such as “civil liberties” were defined
differently by youth than the general population; younger voters more frequently identified
abortion and gay marriage in these categories (Tedesco, et al. 2007).
Candidates’ websites in 2004 reflected their overall campaigns. President Bush’s more
concise website provided proactive features to attach his opponent that included fanning fears of
Senator Kerry (Bush/Cheney Campaign 2004).iii
Alternatively, Senator Kerry’s site provided
more text, and exhibited a more defensive and reactive posture. Kerry’s site also appealed more
directly to the visitor’s intellect (Kerry/Edwards Campaign 2004). Kerry’s site listed twice as
many issues as Bush’s, beginning with National Security, Economy and Jobs, Health Care,
Energy Independence and Homeland Security. Bush’s site listed Jobs and Economy, Compassion
and Values, Education, Health Care and Safety and Security. In the three presidential debates,
Bush also did not use as many issue-related words but more than half of the issue-related words
he did use related to national security and military threats (e.g., weapons of mass destruction,
terrorists, Al Qaida, enemy, nuclear, fight, threat, etc.) While Kerry employed some of those
words, he also added peace, security, safe, money, cost, training, work, faith, and right to his list
(see the debate word clouds, Appendix A).
To summarize, in 2000 younger voters were primarily interested in education, especially
tuition costs and health care, particularly health insurance that might benefit them. By 2004,
economic issues, the Iraq war, including the draft, terrorism and national security topped the
concerns of younger Americans. While there were differences in policy preferences, overall issue
concerns were similar across age groups which suggests that politicians can effectively couch
their appeals to this demographic based on issues important to youth. More recent scholarly
attention is focused on how younger voters are mobilized through technology and new electronic
platforms (cell phones, facebook, etc.), but is largely ignoring the issues that are engaging youth
politically (Winograd and Hais 2008). If younger voters can be wooed similarly to older voters,
candidates might look beyond the media and define their stances on the issues that speak to this
growing and diverse cohort.
The Bush Campaigns and the Future of the Republican Party
The Republican Party and the Bush campaign organization did not consider young people
to be a part of their core voting bloc of supporters in either 2000 or 2004. They limited their
target group of young voters to college students and conservatives in the upper age range of the
youth cohort. This strategy may have been cost-effective and resource-savvy in the short term,
but detrimental in the long run. The Republicans essentially wrote-off most young first time
voters when they had the opportunity to establish a pattern of party voting that would help the
party through the process of generational replacement.
While the Bush campaign was able to successfully attract young Christian voters, this
group did not remain committed to the Republican cause in 2008. Despite the presence of Sarah
Palin, a conservative who appealed to evangelicals, on the Republican ticket, Barak Obama cut
into this Republican bailiwick. He was able to court young Christian voters by focusing on their
mounting concerns about Bush policies, including the war in Iraq and social welfare. While
older Christians remain decidedly conservative and Republican, younger evangelicals are
divided by their concerns with social justice. Obama was able to capture 33% of the 18 to 29
year old evangelical vote (Dokoupil 2009).
Emerging political cohorts have issues that they care about. Similar to other cohorts,
politicians could effectively mobilize younger voters by championing issues youth support. More
recently, media and scholars have focused on the new mediums that politicians used to court
youth, and how youth are using social networking sites, texting via cell phone and other
technologies to mobilize. Less attention, however, is being paid to which issues are motivating
youth political participation. While approximately 10 million youth are attending college, which
makes this an important demographic by size alone, a real challenge for candidates will be to
reach youth who don’t enroll in higher education (over 40% of 10-29 year olds don’t enroll in
college) (Harvard 2005, CIRCLE 2008).
Candidates demonstrate to younger voters that they are hip and in touch by speaking to
their issues in the communication mediums youth employ. In 2004, this was MTV, but in 2008 it
had changed to include more online resources including social networking sites, blogs, and also
through cell phones, particularly text messaging. The medium is likely to keep evolving but a
sure way for candidates to fully engage younger voters is to address issues in a positive manner
that concern youth on their turf.
Youth mobilization organizations that became energized in the 2004 campaign created an
effective infrastructure for youth activation. These organizations caused the media as well as
campaign organizations to take notice, and to realize that reaching out to young voters could be
profitable. The future of the parties is in many ways vested in the manner in they are able to
attract young generations of voters.
Appendix A:Word Frequency in 2004 Debates
“Word Clouds” or “Text Clouds” visually represent the word frequency of any text. Words with
more frequency appear with more prominence in the figure and can be modified (we used
www.wordle.net). Transcripts from the three presidential debates from 2004 were downloaded
from the website for the Commission on Presidential Debates
(http://www.debates.org/pages/debtrans.html). The text was broken down into three parts: the
questions, President Bush’s text, and Senator Kerry’s text. All debate instructions, references to
the candidates, common use words (such as “the,” “and,” and “or”), and the word “question”
were eliminated from the text when calculating the word frequency for the questions sections.
Word Cloud for QUESTIONS asked during all three debates.
Word Cloud for GEORGE W. BUSH text from all three debates.
Word Cloud for JOHN KERRY text from all three debates.
There are a variety of ways of measuring turnout in presidential elections. The U.S. Census
Bureau uses the voting age population when calculating voter turnout. This calculation can
include people, such as convicted felons, who are not eligible to vote. An alternative measure
attempts to correct for this fact by estimating the number of eligible voters as a basis for
computing turnout. Turnout using eligible voters in the computation is higher than that
employing the voting age population. However, voting trends are essentially the same using
either method. Census Bureau data are employed primarily in this study.
Al Gore received a total of 50,999,897 votes, while 50,456,002 votes were cast for George W.
Bush (Federal Election Commission 2001).
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was “John Kerry’s Flip-Flop Olympics”. Kerry also had a few features, such as “W stands for
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