With the presidential election just a week away, George W. Bush and John Kerry would no doubt like to know what's on the minds of young people, who are expected to cast more votes on Nov. 2 than they did in 2000.
If voters under 30 who work in the advertising-agency business are any indication, they are not influenced much by the traditional political ads coming from the campaigns, according to an exclusive study of 280 employees conducted by Interpublic Group's McCann Erickson. (The 48-hour poll, launched Oct. 13, was based on a questionnaire sent to 800 employees under 30.) They are also not likely to be swayed by negative advertising, and when they are, they are often apt to be sympathetic to the candidate being attacked rather than the sponsor of the negative message.
The McCann employees, who were polled by the agency's young-adult focused TAG unit, reported receiving the majority of their political news from traditional network television, with cable programs such as Comedy Central's The Daily Show being a popular alternative. Newsweek was the most common magazine represented, while only 3 percent of the respondents cited Internet blogs as a major source of political news.
Only 10 percent of the respondents admitted to being swayed by negative advertising, but one-third of those were actually convinced to vote for the candidate under attack. Neal Davies, management director of the TAG unit, argued that the anti-Kerry ads put out by the political-interest group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth may have actually given Kerry a lift with this cohort. "There is an attitude among young voters of, 'I'm sick of mudslinging, and if this is going out in your name, I am going to support someone else,' " Davies said. "There is an underlying current of, 'Stop blaming someone else and tell me what your policies are.' "
Davies also pointed to the fact that 25 percent of the respondents who specified which cable-TV network they watch for political news cited Comedy Central, which airs The Daily Show. "If more and more young adults are citing The Daily Show as a legitimate source of political information, is that something that leads to apathy or even more distrust in the political process?" Davies asked.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a historian and professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, argued that Daily Show viewers are actually more knowledgeable about politics than network evening-news viewers, based on a survey her school conducted. "Usually, news consumption correlates with voting, and for all its reputation as a show that lampoons the political process, it has a high amount of political information in it," Jamieson said.
While Jamieson said she would not necessarily rely on the opinions of media-savvy young people from an ad agency to draw conclusions about young voters in general, she did say there was evidence to suggest young voters are likely to turn out in greater numbers at the polls this year. "It is the prospect of the draft," Jamieson said. "It is an economy that is not doing as well as young people would like. We know you get a lot more voting when there is high economic anxiety."
Bill Hillsman, president and chief creative officer at Northwoods Advertising in Minneapolis, said young voters typically want more choices of candidates than they are usually presented with, which is one reason why they have not turned out in greater numbers in the past. "Usually, the larger the turnout, the worse it is for the incumbent," Hillsman noted.
Based on his experience working on Jesse Ventura's 1998 gubernatorial campaign in Minnesota and Ralph Nader's 2000 bid for the presidency—two campaigns that heavily targeted young voters—Hillsman said negative advertising did lead to sympathy votes for the person being attacked. He said this was especially true for Nader, as many young voters felt he was being unfairly attacked by both parties—but especially by the Democrats.
Hillsman said what makes this election so different for young voters is the partisanship and polarity of the race. "Here they are, not getting more choices, but you see an unusual interest because of the partisanship and the differences between the candidates," he said.
Said Jamieson, "It is an open question, but this may be the year when the young voter is mobilized."