Thursday, August 2, 2012

Focus Group Summary Data : What We Learned About Young Voters in 2012 Presidential Campaign

During spring 2012, members of the COM 398: Controlling Spin class conducted four separate focus groups to determine how engaged young voters (defined as between 17-30) were in the presidential primary.  Specifically, we wanted to determine what issues or concerns were affecting their perceptions of the 2012 campaigns, how they acquired political information about the race, the level of their affiliation with political party or ideology, and their assessment of how effectively the presidential primary campaigns were at addressing their interests.

Four focus groups were conducted, two within the COM 398 class, one with students in COM 102 and a fourth at the Bigler High School Journalism Conference held at Wilkes University on April 13. A total of 43 individuals participated, almost evenly split between females and males.  Specific demographic breakdowns will be included with each focus group.

(1) FG#1        

5 males and 5 females; all 10 were registered voters.

Political affiliation: 5 registered Democrats, 3 registered as Independents and 2 as Republicans. All 10 were Wilkes University Communication Studies majors enrolled in the COM 398 class and had been following the 2012 presidential primary throughout the semester.  Ages ranged from 19-23.

Issues that they wanted to hear about in the 2012 presidential campaign, in order of frequency: (a) jobs; (b) growing student loans and debt; (c) making the educational system a top priority (not just higher education); (d) gay rights (including marriage)/civil and human rights; (e) health care, and (f) issues of women’s rights.

Excerpts regarding “issues” from discussion:

“Outsourcing jobs to India and China—especially Apple’s iPod in China, is affecting jobs here. Production jobs need to be returned here…we need federal incentives for businesses to in-source jobs in U.S.”

“The poor job market combined with escalating college loan debt, functions as a double-edged blow to my generation’s ability to create a secure future.”

“I will leave college with over $50,000 in college debt. It will take many years to pay that down, even if I get a job after graduating in May.”

“Education should be the last program cut when budget cuts are applied.”

 “We need to stop accepting poor teaching…and graduating students who fail.”

“The U.S. is long past the point of singling out a group as being unprotected by their civil rights, including marrying whomever they choose.”

“Gay marriage is an issue of civil rights and equality—and not religion.”

“My recent visit to a local emergency room would have cost over $14,000, but I was covered by my parent’s insurance. I support Obama Care.”

“We need to make contraceptives available to everyone. Do not outlaw birth control.”

Birth control is a health care issue for many people. I strongly disagree with candidates who link birth control to religion and morality. For me, birth control is a health issue, and not always used as a contraceptive.”

When asked how candidate character and personal traits, as well as campaign strategies, might influence who they vote for in 2012, FG#1 mentioned in rank order: (a) being relatable; (b) honesty; (c) stop negative ads; (d) demonstrate foresight and long-term vision for the country; and (e) stop using devil/god terms; left/right polarizing language.

Excerpts from FG#! On “candidate character or traits” that will
Determine who they will vote for in 2012:

“Be relatable. If you want my vote you should not be condescending when speaking to or about young voters, middle-class voters or women.”

 “Put constituent needs ahead of self-interests.”

“Honesty is the key. Determining who is honest is very hard in a political campaign.”

“Please embrace nonpartisanship—I am so sick of campaigning in Republican or Democratic terms. Address the whole nation’s needs.”

“Stop the negative ads!  I tune them out.”

“In this election I can’t tell if an ad is the voice of the candidate or funded by some multi-millionaire PAC. The ugliest ads that attack others get away with it because a PAC sponsors it. This election’s ads are nastier than ever.”

“We really need campaign finance reform—now.”

“ I know people want to hear how a candidate will make their lives better right now. But I expect a President to have foresight, long-term vision for how we can move forward.”

“Polarizing language, like devil/god terms insult me. Don’t candidates realize young voters can see right past those cheap tactics?”

The group was also asked how they get their information about the presidential campaign.  Acknowledging that this specific group may be better informed than most because of their enrollment in this class, they acquire information about the 2012 campaign from: (a) conversations with their friends who follow politics; (b) Twitter from on-line news sources; (3) on-line news, mostly headlines from CNN; (d) Jon Stewart and the Comedy Channel; and (e) a tie between blogs and local newspapers.

Excerpts regarding how they acquire political information:

“I learn the most from our conversations in class and outside of class. I am interested in why my friends feel the way they do about the election.”

“I read CNN headline news…seldom more than that unless it is something that interests me.”

“I get my news on-line. I don’t read local or national papers.”

“Now I get Twitter updates from Politico. I read what comes to me as a text.”

“Most of my friends get their political news from Jon Stewart or the others on the Comedy Channel. I think their sarcasm is more objective than most political newscasts—they ridicule everyone equally.”

“I don’t have the time to watch 30 minutes of news. It doesn’t interest me.”

Comments on how engaged they are in the campaign and the political process over-all, included repeated comments like this following:

I am a registered Independent. I don’t want anything to do with the major political parties. They don’t speak to my needs as a young college student. Maybe I am a Libertarian.”

“Ten years from now, almost no young voters will identify with either the Republican or Democratic party. A real generational divide has emerged and it won’t go away.”

(2) FG #2 

This focus group was conducted in mid-March and involved 4 males and 4 females, all Communication Studies students enrolled in the COM 398 class. Again, they were probably better informed than their peers because of the content of the class. Of the participants, 3 were registered Democrats, 2 were Republican, 1 Independent and 2 were not registered to vote.  Ages ranged from 19-24.

Regarding the issues that mattered to them, they agreed with the topics raised in FG #1, but in addition added the following:

“There needs to be a separation of church and state. That separation should be there but listening to this campaign it is clear the church still influences the political process.”

 “I strongly oppose censorship on the internet. This is actually related to job creation and revenue development.”

 In terms of how they get their political information, this group expanded on the role of social media:

“Everyone our age is reached through the social media—first and frequently.”

“People want to be entertained, especially our generation. That’s why Jon Stewart is a source of campaign information. I watched the GOP primary debate in SC with my friends. And we made fun of everything—the moderator, the candidates and how seriously they took it. We didn’t take it seriously at all.”

“My family is not very politically involved. I was taught that you can’t trust politicians and that they are all liars.”

“I have not been taught how to vote…or why.”

The relevance of the two-party system came up repeatedly in FG#2:

“The two party system is ridiculous; it is judgmental and labels people.”

The parties spend way too much money and spend too much time fighting. That’s just not relevant to me. In fact, it makes me want to stay away from politics.”

“For me, and many of my peers, it’s time for No parties, just people.”

Final note: when asked if they had to vote for President at that time, which of the leading candidates would they vote for, 15 said they would vote for President Obama and 3 for Mitt Romney.

(3) FG#3  

The third focus group consisted of 8 Wilkes students enrolled in COM 102: Principles of Communication class, which is required of Communication Studies, Integrated Media, and some undeclared students. All eight were registered to vote. There were 4 males and 4 females, aged 18-23.  They were asked a similar question protocol as FG #1 and 2. Four of the eight were registered Independent, 2 Democrats, 1 Republican and 1 Libertarian.

Regarding issues or topics that concern them, this FG agreed with FG #1 and 2 and ranked jobs and the economy as the number one issue that concerned them. However, the other issues difference somewhat. Issues in rank order: (a) the economy, specifically jobs; (2) education and (3) and abortion as related to birth control.

Excerpts from discussion of issues in FG#3:

 “No one seems to know how to fix the economy. I will vote for someone who can restore a sense of well being.”

 “Obama is doing damage.”

“I look ahead and I don’t see jobs.”

“Abortion is an issue that will heavily sway who I vote for.”

“I could argue for hours on birth control and abortion, but that is a personal stand.”

When asked how they get their political information, FG#3 expanded the discussion into how they learned anything about politics.

Excerpts from FG#3’s discussion of sources of influence and information:

“I don’t follow politics.” {Mentioned by four participants)

 “My parents never pushed politics, they never encouraged me at all. However, my high school did.”

“In my high school history class, we were given voter registration forms when you turned 18.”

“My parents heavily encouraged me, and politics was discussed daily at home. They are involved in local politics and pushed me to become a Democrat, so I became a fan of the Republicans.”

“I have friends who are active in politics. I listen to them.”

FG#3 participants acquire political information about the 2012 campaign from: (a) friends—conversations and Face Book; (2) SNL and comedy shows; (3) CNN and to a limited degree (4) local papers. Only one follows national news; one follows local news coverage “of the corruption.”

“I get information from CNN on basic issues and the candidates.

“When my friend who is interested in politics posts something on Facebook, if I’m interested I will look.” (Several agreed about getting information from Face Book postings by their friends.)

“I get most of my information—all subjects-- from Face Book and Twitter.”

“I watch Saturday Night Live and enjoy when they make fun of the candidates, esp. after the GOP debates.”

“I talk to peers…that’s where I learn about the campaign.”

“We don’t pay attention to politics, or news in general. I would tell the next generation of young voters to stay better informed and educate themselves, even if they don’t want to.”

“I stay out of political discussions. I don’t like the rift it creates between people.”

FG#3 was also opinionated about the two-party system.

Excerpts on the two-party system from FG#3:

“I am a Democrat and will always be a Democrat. However, I am not blindly voting for someone just because of their party.”

“It [two-party system] works, so why add more parties? That would make it more confusing.”

“The Tea Party is way too extreme.”

“If I have to pick, it would be the lesser of two evils. A no party system makes sense. It should be the person or individual candidate and not the party that shapes voting.”

“Republicans today are what Democrats used to be—militating for change and social reform.”

When asked who they would vote for, if the election were held on the day of the FG, this group had a tepid response. Two said possibly Obama, one possibly Romney and five said they didn’t think they could vote for any of the current candidates

(4)  FG#4. 

On April 13, the fourth focus group was held as part of the annual Bigler High School Journalism Conference at Wilkes University. Knowing the participants would be high school-aged, the questions were adapted to the “next generation” of voters.  FG#4 had 17 participants, 9 males and 8 females. The ages ranged from 14-18. Students were from 6 different high schools in northeastern PA. FG#4 differed from the other three in several key ways. They were younger. They were more politically informed. And, they seemed to have been strongly influenced by the Libertarian Party.  Even though they were from 6 different schools, the affiliation to the Libertarian Party transcended any one school’s influence or location.  If they were to register now, seven of the 17 would register as Libertarians; 4 Democrats; 4 Republicans and 2 as Independents.

(The FG moderator did a follow up on how they were defining Libertarian to make sure they knew what the party was. All seven gave clear, detailed explanations of the Libertarian Party.)

When asked where and how they first were introduced to the importance of politics and voting, their responses were, in rank order: (a) reading on-line newspapers daily; (b) national broadcast media, including on-line broadcasts; (c) classes and teachers at school;
(d) Jon Stewart and Colbert Report and  (e) Twitter and Face Book postings by friends.

Excerpts on sources of information from FG#4:

“I listen to Glen Beck.”

“I have a history class that discusses the election and the parties every day. I get a lot of information from our discussions and my teacher,”

 “I actually watch Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report to learn about the campaign and debates.”

“I follow some blogs and Fox News.”

“I get all of my news on-line. It is easier and faster.”

When asked about the issues that mattered to them, FG#4 participants were both vague and strongly aligned with religion.  They cited the following as issues that concerned them: (a) jobs/employment and  (2) birth control and abortion.  Almost no comments were made on education.

Excerpts on issues from FG #4:

“Life begins at conception. I am pro-life and that shapes my vote.”

“Separation of church and state is important. The Republican views on birth control and a woman’s right to choose are being taken way too seriously.”

“There is a big divide between us and our parents and grandparents. Their issues—social security, Medicare, Iraq—those are not my issues.”

“I will not vote for anyone who supports abortion.”

When asked about the two-party system, FG#4 was the least hostile to political parties. However, they were strongly supportive of third parties, specifically the Libertarian Party. When asked if the election were to be held now, six would vote for Ron Paul, five for Obama and three for Romney. The others had no opinion at this time.

Excerpts from FG#4:

“In the Northern Tier the Tea Party Republicans are solid. I am with them.”

“Government should not regulate business or an individual’s freedom. I am behind Ron Paul.”

Key Take-Away Trends from Four Focus Groups of Young Voters Conducted at Wilkes University - May 2012

Four separate focus groups involving 43 individuals were conducted from March through mid-April by the COM 398: Controlling Spin—News, PR and Politics class at Wilkes University.  The participants ranged in age from 14-24.  Twenty-five of the 43 participants were already registered to vote, with 18 not registered.  After analyzing the data from the focus groups, five key take-away trends among these young voters—and the next generation of voters—suggest a changing electorate.

•Young voters get almost all information about the 2012 presidential campaign from conversations with friends and from social media (especially Face Book and Twitter).  CNN Headline News, Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report were mentioned more often as  “political news sources” than any other broadcast or print sources.

“Everyone our age is reached through social media—first and frequently.”

•There is distrust of the 2-party system among young voters, coupled
with growing registration as Independents among the 18-24 year olds.  Of the 26 participants old enough to register, their registrations included:
            Democrat                  38.5% (10)
            Independent             31% (8)
            Republican               19% (5)
            Libertarian               .04% (1)
            Not Registered         .08% (2)

Of the total 43 participants, including the high school students, while “Democrat” was most often selected, the combined registration as “Independent” and “Libertarian” totaled 42% of the young voters.
            Democrat                  32.5% (14)
            Independent             23% (10)
            Republican               21% (9)
            Libertarian               18.5% (8)
            Not Registered         4.5 % (2)

“Ten years from now, almost no young voters will identify with either the Republicans or Democrats. A real generational divide has emerged and it won’t go away.”

•Issues that concern young voters most are: jobs, mounting student loans and debt, improving quality of over-all educational system, civil rights for gays, including marriage, and separation of church and state.  Regarding issues, age matters. There was a big difference between how 18-24 year olds responded to this question and how the high school students, aged 14-18 responded.

“I graduate in May with $50,000 in debt from college.  I am concerned about my job prospects since I will be paying off loans for years.”

The U.S. is long past the point of singling out a group as being unprotected
By their civil rights, including marrying whomever they choose.”

•Young voters, and the next generation of voters, are very media savvy and see campaigns that use negative ads as divisive. Polarizing language is seen as typical of two-party campaigning.

“Polarizing language insults me, especially god/devil terms. Don’t candidates realize young voters can see right past these cheap tactics?”

“Be relatable. If you want my vote, you should not be condescending when speaking to or about young voters, middle-class voters or women.”

•At the time of the focus groups in March-April 2012, when asked, “If the election were held today, which of the presidential candidates would you voter for” young voters were leaning toward President Obama or not voting at all.
            Obama                        51% (22)
            No One                       19% (8)
            Romney                      16% (7)
            Paul                            14% (6)

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