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Youth Vote: Dems' Secret Weapon 40 Years in the Making?

Youth Vote: Dems' Secret Weapon 40 Years in the Making?

By Carl M. Cannon - March 25, 2011

(President Nixon signs the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age in America to 18 from 21.)

Forty years ago this week, the House of Representatives, on an overwhelming bipartisan vote, sent a proposed constitutional amendment to the states to lower the voting age in this country to 18. It was a time of war - a war in which tens of thousands of young men younger than 21 were conscripted into military service and sent into combat - and the amendment carried both moral authority and a grim logic.

Two weeks earlier, the Senate passed it 94-0; and the measure that became the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the states in record time. By Independence Day, it was the law of the land, and at a July 5, 1971 White House signing ceremony, President Nixon gazed on a sea of handpicked young faces and proclaimed, "The reason I believe that your generation, the 11 million new voters, will do so much for America at home is that you will infuse into this nation some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose that this country always needs."

In the ensuing four decades, the 26th Amendment has changed nothing. Or perhaps, it changed everything, but one had to look closely to notice -- and be patient.

For starters, lowering the voting age helped shape young Americans' expectations of their country and themselves. Paradoxically, it may have helped both Richard Nixon and his 1972 opponent, George McGovern. It boosted the Republican Party in the era of Ronald Reagan, although Reagan won so big it was easy to miss. It certainly gave a shot in the arm to Barack Obama, and may do so again.

The youth vote played a role in Iowa in 1972 - and in many states in 2008. In the current campaign cycle, as candidates' and their armies of loyalists start to muster in Iowa and New Hampshire for 2012, it's worth revisiting the fight that gave young Americans the vote, and to remember what they have done with it.

"The drive to amend the constitution and thus enfranchise young adults 18-21 was, a priori, an expression of faith in the political system," says Les Francis, a veteran Democratic consultant who cut his teeth in politics on this issue. "And it came at precisely the same time that much media and political attention was being paid to those who were either working outside the system or who were, in fact, trying to undo or overturn the system."

For Francis, then a young activist working for the California Teachers Association, the story begins in the summer of 1968 when Houston delegates to the student arm of the National Education Association passed a resolution in favor of the 18-year-old vote, along with a directive that their officers and staff press the issue with the parent organization that was set to meet a week later in Dallas. The context for this decree was the Vietnam War. "Old enough to die," went the refrain in Houston, "old enough to vote."

Long Time Coming

That refrain was not a new one in U.S. history.

The fighting age had always been lower than the voting age in America -- even before there was a United States of America. At age 13, Andrew Jackson fought against the British in the Revolutionary War, and was wounded and taken prisoner. Two of his brothers, also teenagers, were killed. But it was the vast carnage of the Civil War that exposed the troubling aspect of requiring military service of young men who had no say in the makeup of their government. In 1867, a delegate at New York's constitutional convention put the incongruity in its simplest terms: "We hold men at 18 liable to the draft and require them to peril their lives on the battlefield."

This lesson was not lost on a teenage seaman from Montana who served in the U.S. Navy during the First World War. That young volunteer, Mike Mansfield of Great Falls, Montana, later became a U.S. Marine, a mining engineer, a member of Congress, and Senate Majority Leader. He was an early opponent of the war in Vietnam - and a supporter of the 18-year-old vote.

In 1942, the same year Montana's voters sent Mansfield to Washington for the first time, Sens. Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, and Jennings Randolph, a West Virginia Democrat, co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18. Vandenberg made a point of noting that one-fourth of the Army, one-third of the Navy, and fully half the Marine Corps consisted of men under 21.

"They possess a great social conscience," Randoph said of the nation's young people, "and are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills."

Their amendment went nowhere, but as the Korean War was winding to a close, the five-star general-turned-president who had commanded those troops in World War II, sounded the call anew. "For years, our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America," Dwight Eisenhower declared in his first State of the Union address. "They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summons."

The National Education Association concurred. Today, the NEA is seen in some circles as an invidious and partisan labor union concerned mainly with electing pliable Democrats, protecting work rules for teachers, and resisting reforms intended to help at-risk students. In previous generations, however, the NEA was led by idealistic liberals who viewed lowering the voting age as a spectacular approbation of public education. Even before Eisenhower weighed in, the NEA publicly supported the efforts of Sens. Vandenberg and Jennings.

But progress came slowly. Georgia lowered its voting age to 18 in 1943. Kentucky heeded Ike's call in 1955. When Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union, they put their voting age at 19 and 20, respectively. But that was it - until the Vietnam War started to roil everything in American politics.

       The eastern world it is explodin',
       violence flarin', bullets loadin',
       you're old enough to kill but not for votin',
       you don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'?
               --Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction," 1965

By 1968, both major parties' platforms at the summer nominating conventions included lowering the voting age. After the campaign ended, with Nixon victorious, some Democrats mused that Hubert Humphrey might have won if 18-year-olds had been allowed to vote. That seems improbable. Lyndon Johnson's vice president was hardly perceived by young people as the poster boy for peace. Also, despite outspoken advocacy of lowering the voting age by Senate Majority Leader Mansfield and -- before he was martyred -- Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, no politician in 1968 was more supportive of the idea than Nixon.

"The younger generation is better educated, it knows more about politics, more about the world, than many of the older people," the Republican nominee said that year in a St. Louis campaign event. "They are smart enough to vote."

There were some pockets of resistance. The New York Times, perhaps believing anything Nixon articulated must be wrong, argued against the proposition that young people possessed the intellectual capacity to cast informed votes-while asserting dismissively that war didn't have anything to do with it. "The requirements for a good soldier and for a good voter are not the same," the newspaper editorialized in 1967. "For the soldier, youthful enthusiasm and physical endurance are of primary importance; for the voter, maturity of judgment far outweighs other qualifications."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler, a New York Democrat who perhaps took his hidebound hometown paper too seriously, stalled the legislation for years. His explanation was even more dubious than the Times.' "The draft age and the voting age," he said, "are as different as chalk is from cheese."

After the 1968 campaign, however, liberals stepped up their efforts. This was especially true of those with a connection to Bobby Kennedy. "If taxation without representation was tyranny," former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen testified before Congress, "then conscription without representation is slavery."

Support also came from Monroe Sweetland, a New Dealer who had served in FDR's administration-and was John Kennedy's point man in Oregon during the 1960 presidential campaign. Sweetland tapped Les Francis and a cadre of other young activists to run the teachers' union's small lobbying shop. And his institutional memory came into play: Sweetland reminded younger NEA officials of their organization's earlier support for lowering the voting age-and for the upbeat rationale it cited at the time. "His pitch to NEA was that the country's teachers ought to express confidence in their products," Francis recalls.

In 1970, Edward Kennedy concocted a shortcut. With the acquiescence of the Senate leadership, he attached a provision to lower the voting age to a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Nixon signed it, but the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Congress had overstepped by dictating the details of voting requirements to states. It was this decision -- and the specter of most states having to hold dual elections -- that made it so easy for Congress to formulate a constitutional amendment.

Ratification took less than 100 days, and as a way of remaining out in front of the issue, Nixon staged his superfluous July 5 signing ceremony - with a clever conservative twist: White House image-makers surrounded Nixon with a clean-cut teenage choral group from Utah that stood in stark contrast to the unkempt anti-war activists who had been protesting the war. But by then teens of all stripes had similar concerns. When a White House correspondent asked one of the hand-picked 17-year-olds whether he planned to vote Republican in 1972, the young man answered succinctly: "Depends if we're out of Vietnam."

The United States would not be out of Vietnam until Gerald Ford was in the Oval Office, but the combination of the youth vote and the war was already impacting presidential politics. In 1972, for the first time, Iowa jumped ahead of New Hampshire on the primary schedule and by autumn of 1971, liberal New York Democratic Rep. Allard Lowenstein had helped form Register for Peace, to galvanize young voters as a pressure point in the campaign to end the war. One of the first, albeit unanticipated, manifestations of the lowered voting ages was in municipal elections in college towns - including Ames, Iowa.

There, on Nov. 2, 1971, newly registered Iowa State University students, united by their antipathy for the draft, helped make the difference in two Ames city council races and a parks commissioner election. This wasn't what liberal activists such as Lowenstein had in mind - they were focused on the Iowa caucuses in January where they wanted to press the fortunes of a peace candidate -- but it was an early sign of the potential power of young voters.

Of the 11 million 18-21 year olds President Nixon had mentioned the previous summer, 347,000 of them lived in Iowa, something known to Gary Hart, McGovern's youthful campaign manager. On Jan. 24, 1972, Edmund Muskie finished first in the Iowa caucuses, but an unexpectedly strong second place finish by McGovern suggested that Muskie might be a vulnerable front-runner, which proved to be true. Moreover, some 14 million Americans had turned 21 since the 1968 election, and Hart predicted that this vast cohort of 25 million first time voters would lead George McGovern into the White House.

Wait a While

In hindsight, Hart's hopes were delusional. Nixon carried 61 percent of the vote nationally, along with 49 states, including George McGovern's South Dakota. But there was some solace for liberals hidden in the landslide. For one thing, 52 percent of 18-21 year olds went to the polls in 1972, nearly the same rate as a population as a whole. Second, McGovern ran much better among voters 18-24 than with any other age demographic.

From that high-water mark, however, voting among those in the 18-24 bracket steadily declined. Perhaps even worse, from liberals' standpoint, for the next few elections young voters did not differ in any significant portion from the rest of the electorate -- until 1984, when in another Republican landslide year they went 60-40 for the oldest winning presidential candidate in history.

As old as he was, however, Ronald Reagan was an aspirational candidate - the kind that would naturally appeal to young people. And in 1996, President Clinton's reelection campaign didn't stress his accomplishments in his first term as much as it did his "Bridge to the 21st Century." This was also an aspirational pitch, developed with young voters in mind, and it helped Bill Clinton run 20 percentage points ahead of Bob Dole among young voters in an election he won only 49-41.

Then, in 2004 -- twenty years after the Reagan landslide and a full generation after the McGovern debacle -- Gary Hart's premature prediction finally came true: When Hart came of age, the rallying cry of left-leaning young activists was not to trust anyone over 30. In the 2004 race between President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry, if only those under 30 years of age were eligible to vote, Kerry would have won.

These numbers are partly attributable to George W. Bush, and to the two wars the United States entered during his first term as president. But not entirely. What seems to have occurred, finally, is that a generation came along - the Millennials, not the Baby Boomers - who were more liberal than their predecessors. In 2008, they supported Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2-1 margin. If it happens that way again in November of 2012, Republicans can forget about winning, and all this media coverage of Iowa, New Hampshire, and the GOP primary season will be much ado about nothing.

The demographic voting patterns of last year's midterm elections provided some comfort to both parties. Although Republicans cleaned up, Democratic candidates outpolled Republicans among under-30 voters by 16 percentage points in 2010. This was half the margin it had been two years ago - and turnout among young voters was lower.

So which election is more instructive when it comes to the youngest generation of voters, 2008 or 2012? The answer to that question could well determine the identity of the featured speaker on Jan. 20, 2013.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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