Rocking the vote

Just 39 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted at the last general election, down from 68 per cent at the election before that in 1997. Clearly young people are feeling disengaged from politics. A new American study offers hope that youth-targeted initiatives can help reverse this trend.

Mitchell McKinney and Mary Banwart compared the political attitudes of a group of young people before and after they watched a televised political debate. In 2003, 181 students watched a youth-tailored ‘Rock the vote’ debate in which eight candidates to become the Democratic nominee for President answered questions from a youth audience and took questions by email and text message. Their reaction to that debate was compared to the experience of 149 other students who watched a standard televised debate in which journalists put questions to a panel of Democratic candidates.

McKinney and Banwart found that compared with the students who watched the standard debate, the students who watched the ‘Rock the vote’ debate expressed greater political trust, reported being less cynical and reported feeling the political candidates were more interested in them and their concerns.

Analysis of the debate transcripts revealed that during the 90 minutes of the standard debate, not a single reference was made to or about young citizens. In contrast, the youth-targeted debate involved frequent appeals directed at a youth audience. For example, Senator Edwards told the audience “You know they stereotype you…I’m here to tell you it is wrong, it is condescending…I’m going to reach out to you, to hear what you have to say”. On the Iraq war, Senator Liberman said “I understand how it tears apart the generation that’s in this room because most of the troops that are in Iraq today are from your generation”.

The researchers concluded: “Our findings here suggest the ‘Rock the Vote’ debate was an effective youth engagement effort. We encourage debate sponsors and broadcasters to continue to develop such forums…”.

McKinney, M.S. & Banwart, M.C. (2005). Rocking the youth vote through debate: examining the effects of a citizen versus journalist controlled debate on civic engagement. Journalism Studies, 6, 153-163.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.