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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Power Shift

Air Date: Week of

Scott Keeter.

Thirty-four percent more young voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama than for John McCain. And how influential were environmental issues in their votes? Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center, who analyzed the youth vote.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Thousands of young demonstrators rallied in the nation’s capital last May to make climate change a primary issue in the Presidential campaign.


TOLKAN: We have been saying for months that we were going to come by the thousands to Capitol Hill because we are the young people that are going to lead this country to the place we need to get to. We came, we’re here, and we are not going anywhere!


GELLERMAN: But did environmental issues actually go anywhere when voters finally went to the polls? Well, with the economy in the dumpster, and two wars dragging on, the environment wasn’t high on voters’ minds, young or old. Scott Keeter studies the youth vote at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

KEETER: Hi, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So did young people really play a major part in putting President-elect Obama in the White House?

KEETER: I think the answer is yes. They were his best age group, but I think their contribution goes beyond just the votes that they cast. There was a lot of organizational energy and even a lot of young people contributed money, and, of course, there was The Great Schlep, the fact that many young people tried to persuade their parents and grandparents to vote for Obama, so I think the indirect effects may have been very important even if their votes weren’t the deciding factor.

GELLERMAN: And The Great Schlep was the Sarah Silverman video that told people to go to visit their Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida and go out and vote for Obama.

KEETER: And he won Florida.

GELLERMAN: Well there have been a slew of polls this season. What do the polls actually show in terms of the age demographics, eighteen to thirty?

KEETER: Well young people are, in our own polling, more accepting of the idea that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity. They are less supportive of offshore drilling and less supportive of drilling in ANWR. They are more likely to choose the environment when you pose the environment versus the economy in one of those trade-off type questions, but they’re not necessarily overwhelmingly environmentalists, conventionally defined. For example, the exit poll included a question on drilling in offshore waters where it’s currently not permitted. A majority of young voters actually said that they favored it, though a smaller majority than among other groups. Similarly, in our own polling we find that there has been a shift this year with the gasoline price spike this summer and other concerns about energy supplies – there’s been a shift among young people towards more energy exploration. Still at lower levels than you find among older voters.

Scott Keeter.

GELLERMAN: I’m a boomer, and the modern environmental movement was created, I think basically by boomers. Now we’ve got this Gen Y, the under 30s. They voted for Obama. Is there a different ethos, you think, that motivates them as compared to the boomers in terms of environmental issues?

KEETER: It’s a good question, and I don’t think anybody really knows the answer. Young voters today have grown up in a world where environmentalism was a part of the curriculum in the public schools, where service activities such as volunteering and community problem solving have been very popular, and I think that there is an adaptation on the part of young people to living a more environmentally friendly life. That hasn’t completely translated into pro-environment attitudes in all respects, but there’s definitely a generational change reflected in this group of young people.

GELLERMAN: So as you pore over the Pew data from the 2008 election and were to look ahead to the next elections in 2010 and 2012, how would you see the environment shaping up as an issue going forward?

KEETER: I think it's going to be even more important and for this reason: I think even though gas prices have come down recently, the country got a very serious shock this summer when gas prices went up above four dollars. And I think that it has motivated a lot of thinking about what the reaction of the country should be in terms of achieving energy independence, not just through energy exploration and drilling, but through creative new technologies. That human energy to achieve that, I think, is going to have to come from younger people. And my guess is that the thinking and the policies that go into promoting that are going to make environmental concerns more important in future elections.

GELLERMAN: Scott Keeter is the director of survey research at the Pew research center. Well Scott, thank you very much – appreciate it.

KEETER: My pleasure.



Scott Keeter's recent research on youth voters for the Pew Research Center

Global Warming and voters


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