US elections: the youth vote

Young people are often expected to be liberal. But ahead of the US elections, Lucy Mair discovers that the Republican Party is winning younger voters

At its worst the American far right is known for misogyny, homophobia, nativism and racism; at its best, for ignorance and stupidity. The alarming rhetoric of radical Republicans, from "legitimate rape" to denial of evolution, tars all conservative-leaning Americans with the same red brush. But the Republican Party is beginning to change as a new generation of young conservatives starts to speak up about what matters to them.

The Republican Party has been at a disadvantage with the youth demographic for the past two decades. In 2008 exit polls revealed that Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain among voters aged 18-29 by 66 per cent to 32 per cent. Polls this year show that Americans under 30 are still the demographic least likely to identify as Republican, but presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is making inroads on Obama's lead.

At the beginning of October, a Pew Research Center survey indicated that Obama was leading his opponent by 16 percentage points among young voters - well down on his 34 point lead in 2008. What's more, researchers at the Center suggest that a surge of support for Romney following the first presidential debate will have narrowed the gap further.

The economy, stupid

To excite the youth vote Mitt Romney selected 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Together, they hope to win over young Americans with the promise of jobs.

And they have a good chance of doing so. Republican Party member Tori Wester, 23, a recent graduate from Georgia, and independent voter Kate Martin, 24, a postgraduate student from Massachusetts, both consider jobs and the economy to be the most important voting issues in the 2012 election. And three quarters of young Americans agree with them, according to a study by the Harvard Institute of Politics.

Like most under-30s, Kate voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he stood for change. But she has since become disillusioned by the president's handling of the economy. "Things have been getting worse on his watch and he spends most of his time blaming the Republicans or the previous administration," she says. Although the headline unemployment figure fell to 7.8 per cent in September, the lowest level of joblessness since Obama took office in January 2009, unemployment among 18-24 year olds stands at 15 per cent, almost twice the national average. What's more, in the past year student loan debt has reached $1 trillion (£625 billion).

That's why more young people are beginning to say the Republican Party offers a better economic deal. The Romney-Ryan plan to kickstart the economy involves reducing welfare spending that currently supports the poor, elderly and sick, and giving a tax break worth $5 trillion to big companies and wealthy individuals. Republican blogger and activist Jesse Merkel, 29, of New York, thinks Romney's CV proves that he can solve the country's economic problems. He says: "Romney is an amazingly successful venture capitalist and has started a number of strong companies. He also turned the disastrous Salt Lake City Olympics into a roaring success and a huge profit."

Can't buy votes

But the economy is where direct agreement between young conservatives and their elders ends. Ryan may be one of the youngest politicians on a presidential ticket in recent years, but he is also a radical social conservative. In addition, Romney pandered to the far right to secure the Republican nomination. His proposals during the campaign have included repealing Obama's healthcare reforms, enforcing a near-total ban on women's right to have an abortion and passing a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage across all 50 states if he's elected to the White House on 6 November.

A growing number of young Republicans hold liberal-to-moderate views on social issues. Take gay marriage for example. A poll by the Pew Research Center in July found that 37 per cent of Republicans aged between 18 and 29 support same-sex marriage, compared with only 24 per cent of all Republicans. Kate considers herself moderately conservative but she believes strongly in gay couples' right to marry. She says: "For me it is completely hypocritical that far right conservatives talk about wanting government out of their lives but then they try to tell strangers who they can or cannot and marry."

Jesse identifies himself as a "9/11 conservative". He was 18 when terrorists attacked the US and says it has completely changed his political perspective. He is conservative on the economy, the size of government and defence, but admits that he has gone back and forth on social issues. "I don't see how gays being allowed to marry will undo the world. I have a gay uncle and a gay aunt, so that has probably shaped my opinion," he says.

Their views seem at odds with the Republican status quo, but young party members say their opinions are closer to traditional American ways. "True conservatism is about wanting to cut down the size, spending and scope of government", says Tori, "not social issues". She adds: "Conservatism is about supporting states' rights and giving each state the right to democratically decide on questions such as gay rights and abortion." Yet she thinks there should be more room for compassion in the Republican Party. "I don't think the government should have a hand in everything but I support health care reform because some people truly need help and we have an obligation to help them as fellow human beings," she says.

Speaking up

In an effort to win over young Americans a number of conservative-led organisations are deliberately downplaying the Republican Party's position on social issues. Editor of Red Alert Politics, a news website aimed at young conservatives, Francesca Chambers says: "We completely avoid social issues because they aren't what young people care about or what they want to read about. We're not trying to divide people or get them to disagree."

But young conservatives do have a lot to say on social questions - it just may conflict with the establishment. "If it wasn't for the bad economy, the most important election issue to me would be the legalisation of same-sex marriage," says Kate. Meanwhile Jesse thinks Republican organisations are shooting themselves in the foot by avoiding certain topics. "If you take social issues off the table you're alienating a huge part of the centre-right base. I think some Republicans just feel embarrassed by social conservatives," he says.

Kate, a pragmatic fiscal conservative, thinks the US needs some new ideas. She says: "I would vote for someone I disagreed with on social issues if I thought they could fix the economy. But Romney only knows how to keep the rich rich and I am not voting for a Wall Street fat cat for president.

"The Republican Party is full of all the wrong ideas these days. I'll most likely vote for the Green Party candidate Jill Stein in November because the party is interested in sustainable technology, environmentalism and protecting students who are drowning in debt."

Ballot Station

How does the US federal electoral system work?

President and vice-president

Presidential elections take place every four years. Candidates for president and their chosen vice-president run together on the same ticket.

  • Americans don't vote directly for the candidate they want to be president, but for a slate of electors in each state who pledge to support a certain candidate in the Electoral College.
  • The name of the presidential candidate that electors have pledged to support is usually printed on the ballot card for clarity, rather than the names of individual electors.
  • Each state is assigned a number of electors which corresponds to its number of representatives in the House (based on population size) and its senators (two per state).
  • After the popular vote, the electors cast their votes for the president and vice-president.
  • The system is winner-takes-all, so the candidate that receives the most popular votes in each state receives all of that state's electoral college votes (except in Maine and Nebraska). This means any vote not cast for the state's winner doesn't count.
  • There are 538 electors across the 50 states. The presidential candidate who wins a majority of 270 or above wins the election.
  • Under this system, it is possible for a candidate to win the most popular votes nationwide, but not win the White House due to the state by state distribution of votes.
  • If each candidate wins 269 electoral college votes, the election goes to Congress where each state's delegation in the House of Representatives gets one vote to cast for president and each senator gets one vote to cast for vice-president.

Congressional Elections

Congressional elections take place every two years. Congress has two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate

  • Senators are chosen directly by the electorate on a first-past-the-post basis.
  • The Senate has 100 members - two per state. They are elected for a six-year term, with a third up for election every two years.

House of Representatives

  • Each state elects a number of representatives to the House of Representatives in proportion to the size of its population.
  • There are 435 members in the House, each directly elected by voters on a first-past-the-post basis.
  • House elections take place every two years. They coincide with the presidential election and then take place again two years later in elections known as "midterms".
  • It is possible (and common) for a party to control the House but not win the presidency.

State and county offices

Elections for state legislatures and their executive, the governor, and county offices, such as sheriff, vary from state to state. They are separate to federal elections, but often take place at the same time and on the same ballot paper.