Pandering won’t net youth vote

One by one, the college-age students looked into the camera and asked presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry about his views on foreign policy, gay marriage, rising college tuition and whether he ever Googled himself.

Kerry mostly stuck to his campaign speech as he deftly answered each query during an interview with Gideon Yago that aired Tuesday night on MTV. Kerry’s foreign policy would build coalitions with allies, he supports civil unions, he has a plan to help make college affordable and – yes, he’s Googled himself.

Kerry’s appearance was part of MTV’s “Choose or Lose 2004” campaign to mobilize young voters. The network’s viewers and people under age 30 make up a powerful voting bloc, and pop culture trendsetters are reaching out to them this year.

Along with the venerable Rock the Vote and MTV, Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and the WWE’s Smackdown Your Vote are encouraging young people to vote. The Declare Yourself campaign brings spoken word performances and concerts to college campuses. They are all part of a 100-plus coalition of organizations striving to register 20 million new young voters.

Registration is good PR for these groups, but education is critical if these organizations really hope young people will affect this year’s election. Right now, neither party has articulated an agenda that specifically addresses the concerns of Gens X and Y. Instead, talk of jobs, health care and the war on terrorism is lumped into broader campaign rhetoric that isn’t easily decipherable.

Chris Jeltrup, 24, a Charlotte, N.C., market analyst, said the candidates talk about health care and Social Security, which doesn’t interest him.

“That means nothing. To me, that’s an old person’s issue,” he said.

Jeltrup said he was unimpressed with both Bush and Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee. Brandon Banner agreed.

“Eighty percent of what they’re talking about doesn’t affect me or my family,” said Banner, 24, a Charlotte stockbroker.

The void between young voters and politicians received national attention in March because Philadelphia-based retailer Urban Outfitters was selling “Voting is for Old People” T-shirts. Political think tanks and voters of all ages criticized the slogan as apathetic.

It was neither. The shirt focused attention on how and whether the parties and candidates are catering to young voters.

Efforts thus far haven’t been impressive. Yes, the Republican National Committee’s voter registration tractor-trailer, equipped with video games, is touring college campuses. It appeared on MTV’s “TRL” two weeks ago. And the Democratic National Committee has hosted fund-raisers in trendy nightclubs in Washington and Atlanta.

Young voters are too savvy to be swayed by star-studded parties and cool trucks. They see their friends and relatives fighting and dying in Iraq, while they face rising college tuition bills, exorbitant health-care costs and a jobless economy.

They want answers, not patronizing outreach. According to a Declare Yourself survey, 61 percent of people 18 to 29 who aren’t registered to vote say they don’t know enough about the candidates and about politics or the issues. It’s easy to understand why. The glut of information on the Internet is unwieldy. Too often, links to various Web sites don’t work or don’t provide comprehensive information about specific issues.

Groups interested in reaching young voters could learn from Charlotte’s MeckPAC, which sends questionnaires to political candidates about issues of concern to gays and lesbians, such as their feelings on domestic partnership benefits. The political action committee then makes endorsements based on the candidates’ responses and other factors.

MTV, Hip-Hop Summit and WWE could create a voting guide geared toward young adult issues without endorsing a particular candidate.

The Kerry interview on MTV is a step toward educating young voters, but it’s only a step. Entertainment organizations are more in touch with the concerns of young adults than national political parties. Voter registration drives are good marketing strategies, but now is the time for pop culture trendsetters to impact something other than their bottom lines.

Tonya Jameson is a columnist for the Charlotte Observer.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.