Using music, humor, and theater, political parties vie for the youth vote
This story includes additional reporting by Nicole Chavez.
"The war in Iraq is going well," said University of Texas-Austin senior Christopher Bazan, who had donned a George Bush mask last Saturday night to lead visitors through a haunted house at the Wiggle Room.
Another young man dressed in fatigues grabbed a bystander and ordered him to get down on the floor and do pushups near a sign that in Arabic read, "Danger, landmines."
"You call that a fucking pushup?" the camouflaged man exclaimed as the sounds of gunfire, exploding bombs and screaming wounded filled the room.
Facsimile Bush passed through a hallway where young actors portrayed jobless and homeless Americans, pleading for relief as Trinity senior Galen McQuillen, aka the Grim Reaper of the Economy, preached that "America does not need your jobs; jobs are cheaper in India."
The event was "Nightmare on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," designed to heighten voter awareness, especially among local college students, who many believe could help swing the 2004 presidential election. It was all in the spirit of showing young voters that politics can be fun, says Trinity University student Emma Hersh, who helped bring a chapter of Generation Democrat to San Antonio for this election cycle. Generation Democrat, she says, has a long-term mission to encourage young voters between 18 and 30 to "get out and get involved, go and vote."
Young Republicans are also mobilizing. After a mock presidential debate at University of the Incarnate Word last week, political science students Alan Psencik and Monica Aguilar talked about their conservative politics. They both noted that "a majority" of political science professors at UIW are liberals, but they present different sides of the issues in their teachings. "Bush is on the right track," says Aguilar. "Since Bush has been in office, more people are learning and getting health care."
(That's not true: According to the U.S. Census, in 2003, the percentage of Americans without health insurance increased from 15.2 percent to 15.6 percent. As for education, it has become more difficult for families and students to afford college tuition, which for an academic year at four-year public colleges and universities is up 87 percent from 1990; at private colleges and universities, the cost is up 93 percent.)
Alan says that since Bush has been in office, his parents have better, higher-paying jobs. "Kerry says 'I have a plan,' to end the war in Iraq, "but he has not told us how he will do it."
Eighteen-year-old San Antonio College student Austin Bazan, a member of both Generation Democrat and the Young Democrats, is one of the youngest voter precinct captains in Guadalupe County. He says that "Republicans are more outspoken in the classroom, but it doesn't matter in the voting booth."
He also opposes the Bush administration's stance on gay marriage. "(Dick) Cheney talks about gay marriage being a state issue, and then they try to install a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage. It takes something severe to change the Constitution. I'm not gay, but I have lots of friends who are."
All debates aside, however, taking polls, reading polls, or even pole-vaulting has so far not provided a clue as to how the young voters in America, assuming they will vote early or go to the ballot sites on November 2, will swing the 2004 election.
Rock the Vote has registered more than 1.3 million young voters through online and on-the-street team efforts, says Jay Strell, communications director. The group sent a Rock the Vote registration bus tour through Houston, Dallas, and Austin at the end of September; Strell calls the response "tremendous."
"We feel the energy, enthusiasm, and momentum on the ground, and there has been a surge in voter registration by young people. We are non-partisan, with a goal to get out the vote and provide education on the issues. We want to turn out 20 million 18-to-30-year-olds on Election Day. That would be a 2 million increase over the year 2000."
Suarez says he and about 30 canvassers are making yard signs, labeling mail, operating a phone bank, and by "10 a.m., we're knocking on doors, about 2,000 doors a day. Of the 1,200 voters we registered, our goal is to get them to the polls." He says that traditionally, Get Out The Vote campaigns will go after voters most likely to vote for their candidate. "We decided to do it the other way around, and go for people who have never voted before, then go after the undecided voter, then go after our base."
Music is key to tapping into younger voters. Earlier this month, Gulf Coast All-Stars, a South Texas hip-hop and R&B label, kicked off their Right 2 Vote Tour at St. Philip's College. Hosted by the Office of Student Life and Service Learning, the non-partisan event mixed music and politics.
"We wanted an open forum out here today," says Heather Eldridge, president of the Student Government Association. "There is power in numbers. The point is to start locally and build up nationally; everyone needs to know they have a voice."
Rodney Hustle, lead singer of Gulf Coast All-Stars, said that St. Philip's was the tour's first college stop in this area before heading to other major Texas universities before November 2.
"Understanding the importance of taking an active role in the community and the election process `going out and voting` is the message everyone at Gulf Coast All-Stars wants to get out through the art of music," Hustle says. "The artists want to use the influence we have to encourage college students all over the nation to make their voices count." •
By Michael Cary