Assessing interest in the presidential election

Although presidential elections are nearly eight months away, the Bush and Kerry camps are already out for blood, and that could determine the course of the election in the minds of students at the U and nationwide.

On March 20, Bush branded Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a “serial tax raiser” after Kerry labeled his GOP critics the most “crooked lying group I’ve ever seen” nine days earlier.

Such is the political climate students will be forced to weather before polls open Nov. 2 and the nation elects its next president.

Casting the politics of politics aside, some U students are ready to cast their ballots today.

“I think it’s pretty important to vote because it’s the basis for your future,” said freshman Chris Cagle, who plans to vote for Bush this November.

If history is any indication, voter turnout rates for 18- to 24-year-olds will be well below the national average of 51 percent come voting time.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, 42 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2000, up 2 percent from 1996.

But, Cagle said, many voters in that age group feel marginalized when it comes to the election process.

“I think it’s because the younger generation thinks its vote won’t count because there’s so many people voting, but every vote counts,” he said.

But numbers indicate that even grass-roots support for Bush in the historically conservative state of Utah are thin in comparison to nearby states.

According to www.georgewbush.com, the official Web site of the Bush campaign, the U’s chapter of Students for Bush holds 38 members, with a statewide collegiate membership of 123 from the U, Utah State University, Weber State University and Utah Valley State College.

A combined 727 students in Arizona’s three largest public universities are members of the Students for Bush campaign.

New Mexico’s three largest schools tallied 127 members, while Washington has 153 members.

But if things seem a little more politically charged this year than in years past, that’s because they are, said U history professor Ray Gunn.

“I think it’s somewhat unusual, but the Democrats decided early on who their candidate would be,” he said.

That, coupled with aggressive campaigning on clear-cut issues, has made the 2004 race for the White House particularly volatile, he said.

“On the one hand, you have political factors coming into play early, and on the other, you have fairly divisive issues already on the table,” Gunn said.

Those issues include the War on Terror, economic factors, tax cuts, the debate over gay marriage and environmental concerns, he said.

U associate professor of political science Matthew Burbank said those issues can be narrowed down even further.

“In this election season, it’s easy to see what the two issues will be: the War on Terror and the economy,” he said.

In fact, Cagle said, the economy is what convinced him to cast a vote in Bush’s favor.

But for freshman Megan Wham, the main priority this fall will be making sure Bush doesn’t see another term.

“I’m voting for Kerry because he’s not Bush. The most important thing to me is to get Bush out of office,” she said.

Regardless of the reason, student interest and activism in American politics is the highest it’s been in nearly three decades, Gunn said.

“We’ve already seen more youth activism than we’ve seen since the Vietnam War,” he said.

However, Burbank said that trend isn’t limited to the 18- to 24-year-old voting bloc.

“There’s stronger enthusiasm from Republicans for Bush this time around than there was in 2000, and there’s been a lot more interest on the Democratic primary than there usually is,” he said.

That should account for an increased presence in the polls by voters of all ages, he said.

But, Wham said, it’s important for younger voters to know the issues before casting their vote.

“There are a lot of people who don’t care in our age group, but there’s also a lot of people who really know the issues and make informed decisions. That’s what’s most important,” she said.

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