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November 22, 2000:

Apathetic students?
Not at Princeton this year, where abortion and the Supreme Court were big issues

By Alex Rawson '01

Each year at election time, worries seem to grow stronger that American politics is characterized by widespread voter apathy. And whenever that issue of apathy is raised, the principal blame seems always to fall upon "America's youth," in particular upon the most fashionable target - the college student. Too often that accusation seems well deserved, but at Princeton, and during this election year, that apathy has not existed.

According to my own highly unscientific "exit poll" (which, for the record, consisted of asking lots of random people, in a very uncontrolled manner, whether or not they voted and why the election was important to them), the vast majority of Princeton undergraduates did in fact vote, and many took considerable interest in the outcomes of many of the national elections even before the Florida fiasco began.

In fact, tensions on campus were high enough that at 2:30 A.M. the morning after election day, an audible cheer rose from the dormitories when Florida was finally (or so it seemed at the time) declared for Bush. This is not to say that students favored the Republican ticket - the campus actually seemed closely divided between Gore and Bush, with a slight majority for Gore. Networks be warned, though, if they haven't already learned their lesson, that this result is not grounds for any kind of projection.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider why Princeton undergraduates, particular in this supposed apathetic age, took such interest in the election, especially since neither of the principal candidates made much of an effort to reach out to younger voters in their respective campaign strategies.

For some, this election took on special significance because it was the first presidential election in which they could vote. No one I talked to claimed to be voting out of a sense of civic duty, although many did say they were voting for the lesser of two evils.

Some cited the importance of being able to trust a candidate as the decisive factor in their vote. Most, though, when asked what single factor made this election important to them, cited one of several issues. And if my informal survey can be granted any slight validity, there are only a very few issues that resonate with Princeton undergraduates.

Far and away the most oft-cited factor, regardless of political affiliation, was abortion and the Supreme Court, perhaps because a reversal of Roe v. Wade would have an immediate, tangible, and lasting impact on our generation.

Even for those who mentioned another issue as more important, abortion was near the top of the priority list.

A few students of Woody Woo persuasion named foreign policy issues as the principal factor in the election, mentioning many countries, ranging from Israel to Taiwan. Others cited a desire for the winner to show at least competence in dealing with other leaders.

Nader supporters (who seemed more prevalent than the 2 percent reflected in the rest of the country) called on the balancing impact of having a viable third party or on environmental issues as their chief concerns.

Finally, a few seniors, faced by the prospect of suddenly having to pay their own taxes, balked at the personal financial implications of one candidate or the other. But beyond that, few issues cropped up with any regularity.

Most notably, almost no one mentioned social security as a concern, and likewise no student cited the use of the budget surplus as the most important issue in the election.

If my survey results are at all valid, then, the issues that resonate most strongly across the country are largely uninteresting to college students, which is perhaps one reason that students appear apathetic. From a slightly more cynical perspective, one student explained, "I think we're just abstract conservatives and liberals - we don't care about particular issues so much at all."

If we support general ideological positions without delving into the specific ramifications of those positions, that, too, will appear, and to an extent is, apathetic. But regardless of the conclusion one draws about why students are compelled by one issue and not by another, one thing at least is clear: Despite consistent warnings to the contrary, political interest among Princeton undergraduates is alive and well. While that interest may stem from different concerns than those that later generations find compelling, it is by no means less valid and it by no means represents collegiate disinterest. Unfortunately, it may sometimes just look that way.