Young Voters Say Economy Is Most Important Factor In Choosing President, Not Race Or Gender, CBS News/ MTV Poll Finds

Candidates don't address job opportunities, education or the environment enough, 18-to-29-year-olds say.

On the eve of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary , a new CBS News/ MTV poll on “The State of the Youth Nation” finds that, like much of America, eligible voters ages 18 to 29 have one thing on their mind these days: the economy. With gas prices spiraling out of control, jobs getting hard to find, the cost of food rising and the continuing meltdown in the housing market, young voters picked the economy as the issue that will be the #1 factor in determining their vote this year.

After turning out in record numbers in this year’s presidential primaries and caucuses, two-thirds of respondents said they feel like they will have as much or more influence in deciding the next president than older voters, with 31 percent saying they will definitely have a bigger impact. That’s up from 2007, when just 17 percent felt that way. But though the November election will include either the first woman or the first black major-party nominee in the nation’s history, the majority of respondents (65 percent) said that they think the campaign has focused too much on matters of race and gender.

Three-quarters of respondents said the economy was in “bad” shape — a number that is nearly identical to those of all adults nationwide in a recent CBS/ New York Times survey, in which 78 percent said the economy was in serious trouble. In a sharp turnaround from last summer, when 10 percent said “pocketbook” issues were their biggest concern, in the new poll, 22 percent called those issues their top worry, followed by the war in Iraq (13 percent versus 19 percent last June), education (6 percent versus 5 percent), the environment (5 percent versus 8 percent) and health care (5 percent versus 7 percent).

Five years into the Iraq war, only 11 percent said terrorism and war would be the biggest problem the younger generation will need to address over the next 20 years, coming in fourth place behind economic problems (34 percent), environmental problems (18 percent) and the education system (13 percent).

With just a third saying that their generation’s prospects for finding jobs are excellent or good, only 29 percent said that they feel the presidential candidates are spending enough time talking about job opportunities for younger people.

Another issue none of the candidates are addressing to young voters’ satisfaction, according to the poll, is the environment. The candidates are not spending enough time addressing global warming, said 47 percent of those polled, and 65 percent said the candidates have not addressed specific plans to help reduce oil and gas consumption. Education also appears to be getting scant attention: 59 percent of those polled said it was not being talked about enough by candidates, with 57 percent saying that college costs and student-loan programs specifically were not being focused on appropriately.

As has been the general trend during the primary season, young Democratic voters favor Illinois Senator Barack Obama (48 percent) over Senator Hillary Clinton (37 percent), which mirrors nationwide exit polls of voters under 30, which give Obama a 59 to 38 percent lead over Clinton overall. But a majority of poll respondents (67 percent) said they saw only minor differences between the two senators on the issues. The good news for both candidates is that younger voters give either one of them an edge over presumptive Republican nominee Senator John McCain in a hypothetical presidential race, with Obama edging McCain 52 percent to 39 percent, and Clinton winning 51 percent to 41 percent.

Younger people who are registered to vote or plan on registering also give the Democrats an edge in categories such as whether they have clear plans to solve the country’s problems (Obama 50 percent, Clinton 52 percent, McCain 34 percent), and whether they like the candidate personally (Obama 71 percent, Clinton 53 percent, McCain 51 percent). A majority of those same voters said they feel like Obama and Clinton care “a lot” about the problems of young people (43 percent and 33 percent respectively, to McCain’s 11 percent), or “some” (45 percent, 45 percent and 46 percent). One of the potential bright spots for Clinton is that 48 percent said the “right experience” is the most important quality in a candidate, a theme she has repeatedly stressed, as opposed to 45 percent who said having “fresh ideas” is most important.

Voters answered questions about other hotly debated issues, from the war in Iraq — which 66 percent said they would like the next president to end (with 33 percent saying the fighting should continue) — to immigration, a majority of young voters (46 percent) expressed a hope that the next president would allow illegal workers to apply for citizenship.

Given the drawn-out nature of the campaign and the bitter fight between Obama and Clinton, more than three-quarters (77 percent) felt that this was an interesting campaign and slightly more are paying a lot of attention (41 percent) to the presidential race than did in 2004 (34 percent). Even so, 75 percent said they had never gotten involved in a political campaign or cause.

Among those who visit sites like MySpace and Facebook, 23 percent said they’d visited candidates’ social-networking pages, 34 percent had visited other political/campaign sites, and 34 percent had watched a political video or campaign ad. Despite the popularity of viral campaign videos and candidate appearances on late-night talk shows, though, 71 percent of those polled said they get much of their political information from newspapers and television, with only 12 percent saying they get “a lot” of their information from late-night talk and comedy shows.

For the poll, interviews with 526 18- to 29-year-olds were conducted by telephone from April 10-15.

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