An Emerging Generation: New wave of voters determines which issues matter most

Five days and counting remain until the final ballots are cast and the roller coaster ride of the 2012 American campaign season rolls to a stop.

Meanwhile, young people ages 18 to 29 make up 21 percent of the vote, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. How they will use that percentage remains to be seen.

When it comes to politics, John Brown University students sway far left, far right and everywhere in between. Political debates can spark up in the dorm, the classroom and even the Caf as students determine which leaders should govern the country.

Though disagreements abound—President Barack Obama or Gov. Mitt Romney, Republican or Democrat, to vote or not to vote—some common themes weave throughout the patchwork quilt of students’ political beliefs. No matter where students land when it comes to marking the ballot, a generational shift in attitude, a concern for the economy, an identification with third parties and the necessity of involvement in the political process continually reappear.

We are not our parents.

When speaking of politics, many students quickly mention their conservative upbringing. Students often followed this statement by explaining how they are in the process of building their own political stance apart from what their parents believe.

“I was raised conservative, as most people probably are that go here,” said senior Andrew Goff. “It’s hard for me to get outside of that, so I was trying to come into… this semester with an open view. Just like developing your own faith, I’m trying to develop my own political stance.”

Most often this new stance means addressing social issues in a new light. A recent survey by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program found that freshmen’s views on political social issues were decidedly more liberal than previous classes.

No matter if the student identified himself as liberal or conservative, percentages increased in the number of students in support of same-sex marriage, legalized abortion and access to public education for undocumented students.

Many University students here still hold on to their conservative views on abortion and homosexuality; however, these issues are no longer as important in choosing a candidate as they were growing up.

“It’s interesting,” Goff said. “I can tell you what I think are not issues, especially like abortion and homosexuality. I feel like they were fairly big the last election and those aren’t big at all.”

Still others claim to be pro-life and pro-biblical marriage but believe the government should not have a say in citizens’ personal choices.

“I believe it’s up to the woman to decide whether or not she wants to give up that child,” said sophomore Bridgette Ojo. “I think you shouldn’t put a limit on someone, saying you can only have abortion if you suffer from incest or something like that… That will open the door up to more things like underground abortion.”

Frank Niles, associate professor of political science, said researchers have seen a generational shift in the rank order of importance in political issues.

“[Students] may be committed to a pro-life position, but there are a host of issues they are also passionate about,” he said. “Justice. Things like sex trafficking. Things like the economy.”

We want a better economy.

When asked what issue was most important in the 2012 election, most agreed the future of the American economy ranked highest. Students came to this conclusion from different angles and found the solution in different candidates.

In a survey of 2,000 young people ages 20 to 29, YouGov and One Young World found that 66 percent believed the national debt would hold their generation back, but 50 percent believed the United States could return to a strong financial growth in the next five years.

Junior Jordan Vaughan said he plans to vote on the economic issues that affect him more, like the number of jobs and gas prices. Being newly married and “making everything work on my own dimes” has put dealing with the recession at the top of his list.

“I’m voting for Romney, and it’s honestly for the economic issues,” Vaughan said. “There’s a solid background in business from him. He’s a governor, but before that all he ever dealt with is money… Mainly, I feel he could cut taxes, which is something I want.”

Others such as senior Stacy Galbo believe saving the economy is critical for living out our biblical calling.

“The most important issue for me right now is the economy because the Bible talks so much about helping the poor,” she said. “Making sure that people are getting the opportunity to make enough money to support their families, especially because most people below the poverty line in America work full-time jobs.”

Galbo said she voted for Obama, not because she particularly likes him but because she is worried the GOP will get the country in a bigger mess, taking the country backward with their economic policy decisions.

Niles also addressed the importance of economic policy.

“We’re slowly making it out of the recession, but a good economy helps everyone from the top all the way down to the bottom,” he said.

We identify with third party candidates.

As students visit the polls and complete their absentee ballots, some will not be checking Obama or Romney.

Niles said the major party candidates are not addressing issues in way that connects with students.

“There is a reason why Ron Paul, despite being the oldest guy running for office, is drawing the youngest voters,” he said. “It’s because as a Libertarian, he is really connecting with this generation of voters who are saying, ‘We want a good economy so we can have jobs in the future, but we also don’t want government to tell us what we can or can’t do in our bedrooms, life and all the rest.’”

Senior Matthias Roberts said Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party appeals to him the most because he is socially liberal, yet fiscally conservative.

“In choosing between Obama and Romney, there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice there,” he said. “Other people say to choose the lesser of two evils, which is great, but I’d rather not, which is why I’m strongly considering voting third party.”

Senior Abby Chestnut plans to vote for Gary Johnson even though her home state of Michigan does not even have his name on the ballot.

“I just don’t want to vote for something I don’t really stand behind,” she said. “And yes, I know that Gary Johnson isn’t going to get elected. That’s fine by me. I’d rather vote and send a message than vote for something I don’t believe in.”

Therefore, vote.

No matter where students stood on the political continuum, each agreed it was important as a Christian and a citizen to be involved in the political process.

“I think political engagement is one way we work out our faith in fear and trembling, we work out our cultural mandate,” Niles said. “It’s essential that Christians are engaged in the political process. It fundamentally pleases God when we participate in activities that evidence his creational purpose, his sovereignty and His character.”

Vaughan added, “Vote. It’s important. It affects the environment in which you preach the gospel. It affects your problems as well.”