Conventional wisdom says that the youth vote is fickle, that in a world of limited budgets, campaign managers are smart to direct resources elsewhere. But new trends in youth political engagement challenge this long-standing belief. And for presidential candidates seeking to exploit these new developments, the message of 2008 may well be, "It's the genocide, stupid."
For the past three years, a stunning number of young people have been active at all levels of the democratic process for the sake of civilians in Darfur, Sudan. As the lifeblood of a movement against genocide, they have created national organizations complete with Washington offices, full-time staff and budgets in the millions.
A Harris Interactive poll of 2,400 young adults ages 18 to 24 (61 percent of them enrolled in an educational program), released recently by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, shows that 44 percent of those surveyed report having voted in the November 2006 congressional elections - a marked increase from the 19.3 percent who reported voting in the 2002 midterms. These numbers suggest that young adults are increasingly reliable as voters.
However, this new generation differs from the older population that political strategists are accustomed to chasing for votes. Young voters understand politics to be more than an action at the ballot box, and they care about different issues than their parents do.
The importance that young voters place on Darfur is greater than almost any of the foreign policy issues candidates expect older voters to care about. When asked what foreign policy issue should be the next priority for President Bush, young Americans in the Institute of Politics poll ranked "dealing with genocide in Darfur" as second only to stabilizing Iraq, at 18 percent. Darfur had more than three times the support found for negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine (5 percent) or fighting the war on terrorism (5 percent).
And young voters translate their concern into effective action. In November 2005, established advocates found themselves unable to get the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Students took up the challenge. They went to OpenSecrets.org to find committee Chairman Sen. Richard G. Lugar's highest campaign contributors. They split up the contact information for these contributors among groups at college campuses nationwide. Donors soon received hundreds of calls asking them to press Senator Lugar to schedule the bill for markup. Two weeks later, the bill was released from committee and passed unanimously in the Senate.
In another example, students across the country decided their universities' endowments should not be invested in companies financially complicit in the Darfur atrocities. Acting on this belief, they mobilized through online networks foreign to most older Americans. Organizing through Facebook.com and MySpace.com, students have pushed more than 30 universities to divest in the past three years. They then used their newly acquired knowledge of capital markets and investment portfolios to set up the Sudan Divestment Task Force, taking on the billions of dollars invested through state pension funds. They organize call-in days, testify to legislatures, and help write legislation. To date, eight states have divested, and the task force has introduced legislation in 20 other states.
Combine the full-throttle way that young adults have engaged with the political process on Darfur and the growing trend in youth voting, and the political relevance of Darfur to presidential candidates becomes clear. The Harris survey shows that young adults place Illinois Sen. Barack Obama at the forefront of presidential contenders in the Democratic ballot, and Rudolph W. Giuliani as the front-runner among Republicans. If their campaign managers wish to keep these leads, they must realize that attention to the genocide in Darfur is as much a political necessity as a moral one.
Not only is this the issue that has generated the greatest youth activism in decades, it is also one of those rare issues that speaks to conservative and liberal young people alike. If the 2008 candidates fail to acknowledge the political importance of Darfur, they do so at their own peril.
Rebecca Hamilton and Chad Hazlett co-founded the Harvard Darfur Action Group and work for the Genocide Intervention Network. Their e-mails are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org