The U.S. Political System

The U.S. Political System

The United States is a representative federal democracy driven by elections in which citizens’ and lobbyists’ diverse interests compete.

Learning Objectives

List three defining characteristics of the U.S. political system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • U.S. politics are shaped by two major political parties: Democrats and Republicans.
  • Citizens have competing interests that differ based on their different backgrounds—the types of jobs they have, their race or age, whether they have children, etc.
  • Politics are also shaped by special interest groups, lobbyists, and the media.

Key Terms

  • lobbyist: A person remunerated to persuade (to lobby) politicians to vote in a certain way or otherwise use their office to affect a desired result.

The U.S. federal government is composed of three distinct branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—whose powers are vested by the U.S. Constitution in the Congress, the President, and the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, respectively.

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Congress: The legislative branch of the U.S. government.

The United States is a representative democracy. Citizens elect representatives to national, state, and local government; those representatives create the laws that govern U.S. society. Although nothing in U.S. law requires it, in practice, the political system is dominated by political parties. With rare exceptions, elections are decided between the two major parties: Democrats and Republicans. Although citizens vote for individual candidates, most candidates are affiliated with one part or another. Therefore, much of U.S. politics boils down to party politics.

The United States is also a diverse society, and citizens’ competing interests are reflected in politics. Citizens may have different voting preferences depending on their family backgrounds, the types of jobs they have, their race or age, whether they have children, and so on. To understand the electoral process, we must understand how different interests come into play.

Individual citizens are not the only players in U.S. politics. Although individual citizens are the only ones who can cast votes, special interest groups and lobbyists may influence elections and law-making with money and other resources. At times, this influence has grown so noticeable that some have called into question whether the U.S. is truly a democracy of the people or something more like an oligarchy of special interest groups. The media also play an important role in politics by influencing public sentiment and acting as an information filter.

Political Parties and Elections

Political parties seek to influence government policy by nominating select candidates to hold seats in political offices.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the party system, both in proportional representation voting systems and two-party systems

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Parties participate in electoral campaigns and educational outreach or protest actions.
  • Parties often espouse an expressed ideology or vision bolstered by a written platform with specific goals, forming a coalition among disparate interests.
  • The type of electoral system is a major factor in determining the type of political party system.
  • In countries that have a proportional representation voting system, three or more parties are often elected to parliament in significant proportions, and thus may have more access to public office.
  • In two-party systems, two political parties dominate to such an extent that electoral success under the banner of any other party is almost impossible.
  • Political parties, still called factions by some, are lobbied vigorously by organizations, businesses, and special interest groups such as trades unions.
  • Multi-party systems are systems in which more than two parties are represented and elected to public office.
  • Political parties, still called factions by some, are lobbied vigorously by organizations, businesses, and special interest groups such as trades unions.

Key Terms

  • faction: A group of people, especially within a political organization, who express a shared belief or opinion different from people who are not part of the group.
  • two-party system: A two-party system is a system where two major political parties dominate voting in nearly all elections at every level of government and, as a result, all or nearly all elected offices are members of one of the two major parties.
  • proportional representation: A voting principle aimed at securing a close match between the percentage of votes that groups of candidates (usually political parties) obtain in elections, and the percentage of seats they receive in the elected body.

Typically, a political party is a political organization seeking to influence government policy by nominating its own select candidates to hold seats in political office, via the process of electoral campaigning. Parties often espouse an expressed ideology or vision, bolstered by a written platform with specific goals that form a coalition among disparate interests.

The type of electoral system is a major factor in determining the type of party political system. In countries with a simple plurality voting system there can be as few as two parties elected in any given jurisdiction. In countries that have a proportional representation voting system, as exists throughout Europe, or a preferential voting system, such as in Australia or Ireland, three or more parties are often elected to parliament in significant proportions, allowing more access to public office. In a nonpartisan system, no official political parties exist, sometimes due to legal restrictions on political parties. In nonpartisan elections, each candidate is eligible for office on his or her own merits. In nonpartisan legislatures, no formal party alignments within the legislature is common.

In two-party systems, such as in Jamaica and Ghana, the two political parties dominate to such an extent that electoral success under the banner of any other party is virtually impossible. Multi-party systems are systems in which more than two parties are represented and elected to public office. Australia, Canada, Pakistan, India, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Norway are examples of countries with two strong main parties, along with smaller or “third” parties that have also obtained representation. The smaller parties may form part of a coalition government together with one of the larger parties, or act independently.

Political parties, still called factions by some, are lobbied vigorously by organizations, businesses and special interest groups such as trades unions. Money and gifts-in-kind to a party, or its leading members, may be offered as incentives. Such donations are the traditional source of funding for all right-of-center cadre parties. In the late 19th century, these parties faced opposition by the newly founded left-of-center workers’ parties, who formed a new party type—the mass membership party—and a new source of political fundraising—membership dues.

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Republican Party, 1985: Ronald Reagan giving his Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention, Detroit, MI.

Voting Behavior

Voter turnout depends on socioeconomic factors such as education, income, gender, age, and race.

Learning Objectives

Describe a few factors that determine voter turnout

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. “Eligible voters” are defined differently in different countries, and the term should not be confused with the total adult population.
  • Socioeconomic factors significantly affect how likely individuals are to vote. The most important socioeconomic factor in voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to vote.
  • While women are generally as likely to vote as men in developed countries, women are underrepresented in political positions.
  • Age is another crucial factor determining voter turnout. Young people are much less likely to vote than are older people, and they are less likely to be politicians.
  • Generally, racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to vote in elections and are underrepresented in political positions.
  • Political power is also stratified through income and education. Wealthier and more educated people are more likely to vote.

Key Terms

  • voter turnout: Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election.
  • socioeconomic factors: Socioeconomic factors include education, income, ethnicity, race, and gender.
  • racial and ethnic minorities: A group of people who have a different ethnicity, religion, language, or culture than that of the majority of people in the place where they live.

Voter Turnout

Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. “Eligible voters” are defined differently in different countries, and the term should not be confused with the total adult population. After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s. In general, low turnout may be due to disenchantment, indifference, or contentment. Low turnout is often considered to be undesirable, and there is much debate over the factors that affect turnout and how to increase it. In spite of significant study devoted to the issue, scholars are divided on reasons for the decline. The causes of decreasing turnout have been attributed to a wide array of economic, demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors. There have been many efforts to increase turnout and encourage voting.

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Voter turnout over time for five countries: Change in voter turnout over time for five selected countries.

In each nation, some parts of society are more likely to vote than others. In high-turnout nations, these differences tend to be limited: as turnout approaches 90 percent, it becomes difficult to find differences of much significance between voters and nonvoters. In low turnout nations, however, the differences between voters and non-voters can be quite marked. Socioeconomic factors significantly affect whether or not individuals voting tendencies. The most important socioeconomic factor in voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to vote, even when controlling for other factors such as income and class that are closely associated with education level.

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Voter Turnout by Educational Attainment –2008 Presidential Election: Educational attainment, an indicator of social class, can predict one’s level of political participation. Those with high educational attainment are more likely to vote in elections than those with little education.

Gender, Age, Ethnicity, Race, Income

There is some debate over the effects of ethnicity, race, and gender on voter turnout. While women are generally as likely as men to vote in developed countries, women are underrepresented in political positions. Women make up a very small percentage of elected officials, both at local and national levels. In the U.S., for instance, in the 109th Congress (2005-2007) there were only 14 female Senators (out of 100) and 70 Congressional Representatives (out of 435).

Age is another crucial factor determining voter turnout. Young people are much less likely to vote than are older people, and they are less likely to be politicians. The lower voting rates of young people in the U.S. help explain why things like Medicare and Social Security in the U.S. are facing looming crises: the elderly will retain many of the benefits of these programs and are unwilling to allow them to be changed even though young people will be the ones to suffer the consequences of these crises.

Generally, racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to vote in elections and are also underrepresented in political positions. If blacks were represented in proportion to their numbers in the U.S., there should be 12 Senators and 52 Members of the House. In 2009, there was 1 black Senator (Roland Burris) and 39 Members of the House. In 2010, the number in the House increased slightly to 41 (7.8 percent), but remained at just 1 percent of the Senate.

Political power is also stratified through income and education. Wealthier and more educated people are more likely to vote. Additionally, wealthier and more educated people are more likely to hold political positions. In the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election, the candidates, John Kerry, and George W. Bush, were both Yale University alumni. John Kerry was a lawyer and George W. Bush had an MBA from Harvard. Both were white, worth millions of dollars, and came from families involved in politics.

Lobbyists and Special Interest Groups

Lobbying describes paid activity in which special interest groups argue for specific legislation in decision-making bodies.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the significance of lobbying according to its multiple instantiations

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Lobbying in the United States describes paid activity in which special interests hire well-connected, professional advocates, often lawyers.
  • Lobbying happens at every level of government, including federal, state, county, municipal, and local governments.
  • A lobbyist, according to the legal sense of the word, is a professional, often a lawyer.
  • Pro bono clients offer activities like fundraisers and awards ceremonies on neutral territory to meet and socialize with local legislators.
  • Corporations which lobby actively tend to be few in number, large, and often sell to the government.

Key Terms

  • corporations: Plural of corporation.
  • lobbyist: A person remunerated to persuade (to lobby) politicians to vote in a certain way or otherwise use their office to effect a desired result.

Lobbying in the United States describes paid activity in which special interests hire well-connected professional advocates, often lawyers, to argue for specific legislation in decision-making bodies such as the United States Congress. It is a highly controversial phenomenon, often seen in a negative light by journalists and the American public, and frequently misunderstood. The current pattern suggests much lobbying is done by corporations although a wide variety of coalitions representing diverse groups are possible. Lobbying happens at every level of government, including federal, state, county, municipal, and even local governments.

Lobbyists are intermediaries between client organizations and lawmakers: They explain to legislators what their organizations want, and they explain to their clients what obstacles elected officials face. Many lobbyists work in lobbying firms or law firms, some of which retain clients outside of lobbying. Others work for advocacy groups, trade associations, companies, and state and local governments. Lobbyists can also be one type of government official, such as a governor of a state, who presses officials in Washington for specific legislation.

While the bulk of lobbying happens by business and professional interests who hire paid professionals, some lobbyists represent non-profits and work pro bono for issues in which they are personally interested. Pro bono clients offer activities like fundraisers and awards ceremonies on neutral territory to meet and socialize with local legislators.

Corporations which lobby actively tend to be large corporations, few in number, and often they sell to the government. Most corporations do not hire lobbyists. One study found that the actual number of firms which do lobbying regularly is fewer than 300, and that the percent of firms engaged in lobbying was 10 percent from 1998-2006. Corporations considering lobbying run into substantial barriers to entry: Corporations have to research the relevant laws about lobbying, hire lobbying firms, and cultivate influential people and make connections. For example, when an issue regarding a change in immigration policy arose, large corporations that were currently lobbying switched focus somewhat to take account of the new regulatory world, but new corporations—even ones likely to be affected by any possible rulings on immigration—stayed out of the lobbying fray, according to the study.

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The Defense Lobby: Defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin sell extensively to the government and must, of necessity, engage in lobbying to win contracts.

African Americans as a Political Force

Collectively, African Americans are more involved in the American political process than other minority groups.

Learning Objectives

Sketch an outline of the general African-American influence on U.S. politics from the mid 1800s to today

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • African Americans have the highest level of Congressional representation of any minority group in the U.S., though this doesn’t extend to the senate.
  • Historically, African Americans were supporters of the Republican Party because it was Republican President Abraham Lincoln who granted freedom to American slaves.
  • The African American trend of voting for Democrats can be traced back to the 1930s during the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program provided economic relief for African Americans.
  • African Americans tend to be conservative on issues related to the family but progressive on questions of social justice and social spending. They tend to hold far more conservative opinions on abortion, extramarital sex, and raising children out of wedlock than Democrats as a whole.

Key Terms

  • conservative: A person who favors maintenance of the status quo or reversion to some earlier status.
  • Great Depression: A major economic collapse that lasted from 1929 to 1940 in the US and a similar period in many other countries.
  • Republican Party: The Republican Party is one of the two major political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. Founded by anti-slavery activists in 1854, it dominated politics nationally for most of the period 1860-1932. Currently the party’s platform generally reflects American conservatism in the U.S. political spectrum.

Collectively, African Americans are more involved in the American political process than other minority groups, indicated by the highest level of voter registration and participation in elections among these groups in 2004. African Americans collectively attain higher levels of education than immigrants to the United States. African Americans also have the highest level of Congressional representation of any minority group in the U.S, though this doesn’t extend to the senate.

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Voter Turnout by Race, 2008 Presidential Election: This is a chart illustrating voter turnout by race for the 2008 Presidential Election using data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Senator Roland Burris: Although African Americans have high political participation rates, they are underrepresented in political office. Senator Roland Burris, of Illinois, is currently the only African American senator.

The large majority of African Americans support the Democratic Party. In the 2004 Presidential Election, Democrat John Kerry received 88 percent of the African American vote, compared to 11 percent for Republican George W. Bush. Although there is an African American lobby in foreign policy, it has not had the impact that African American organizations have had in domestic policy.

Historically, African Americans were supporters of the Republican Party because it was Republican President Abraham Lincoln who granted freedom to American slaves; at the time, the Republicans and Democrats represented the sectional interests of the North and South, respectively, rather than any specific ideology—both right and left were represented equally in both parties.

The African American trend of voting for Democrats can be traced back to the 1930s during the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program provided economic relief for African Americans. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition turned the Democratic Party into an organization of the working class and their liberal allies, regardless of region. The African American vote became even more solidly Democratic when Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for civil rights legislation during the 1960s.

African Americans tend to hold far more conservative opinions on abortion, extramarital sex, and raising children out of wedlock than Democrats as a whole. On financial issues, they are in line with Democrats, generally supporting a more progressive tax structure to provide more services and reduce injustice and as well as more government spending on social services.

Hispanics as a Political Force

Hispanics have the ability to be an influential force in politics, a fact that is especially true in areas with high Hispanic populations.

Learning Objectives

Explain the nuances within the so-called ”Hispanic vote”

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The term Hispanic is used in the United States to refer to people with origins in Spanish-speaking countries, like Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica.
  • The majority of Hispanics either identify themselves as Democrats or support the Democratic party.
  • Due to the homogeneity among Hispanic voters, they have the ability to be an influential force in American politics. This is especially true in areas with high Hispanic populations, and, based on demographic predictions, will continue to be important throughout the 21st century.
  • Depending on their ethnicity and background, Hispanics differ on voting trends. For example, Cuban Americans and Colombian Americans tend to favor conservative political ideologies. In contrast, Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and Dominican Americans tend to favor liberal views.
  • The Presidency of George W. Bush had a significant impact on the political leanings of Hispanics and Latinos.
  • In the 2006 midterm election, however, due to the unpopularity of the Iraq War, the heated debate concerning illegal immigration, and Republican-related Congressional scandals, Hispanics and Latinos went as strongly Democratic as they have since the Clinton years.

Key Terms

  • Hispanic: of or relating to a Spanish-speaking people or culture, as in Latin America.
  • midterm election: an election, held every four years, to elect members of Congress; during midterm elections, the president is not elected
  • Democratic Party: The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, the other of which is the Republican Party.

The term Hispanic, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget, is used in the United States to identify people with origins in Spanish-speaking countries, like Mexico, Peru, Cuba, or Costa Rica.

Hispanic Party Affiliation

Depending on their location and background, Hispanics differ on their political views. While Hispanics have a diversity of views, they disproportionately identify themselves as Democratic and/or support Democratic candidates. Only 23% of Hispanics identify as Republicans. For example, in the 2010 midterm elections, in spite of general Republican victories, 60% of Hispanics voted Democratic, while only 38% voted Republican. In 2008, 67% of Hispanics supported Obama. In 2006, 69% of Hispanic voters supported Democratic candidates in congressional races, while only 30% supported Republican candidates.

Demographic Trends

Due to the homogeneity among Hispanic voters, they have the ability to be an influential force in American politics. This is especially true in areas with high Hispanic populations. Statistics indicate that the American Hispanic population is increasing and will continue to do so steadily over the ensuing decades of the 21st century. A 2012 study, conducted by the Center for Immigration Studies, projected that in November 2012, Hispanics would comprise 17.2% of the total U.S. population. The same study showed that, in the United States, Hispanics now constitute 15% of adults, 11.2% of adult citizens, and 8.9% of actual voters. In comparison, the same study showed that in 2012, non-Hispanic whites were expected to constitute 73.4% of the national vote. Non-Hispanic blacks were only expected to represent 12.2% of the national vote.

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An Immigration Rally in Chicago, 2006: Immigration is an important issue for may Hispanic and Latino voters.

Political Differences in the Hispanic Community

Hispanics are often classified as a unitary voting bloc, but there are differences in political preferences within this community. For example, Cuban Americans and Colombian Americans tend to favor conservative political ideologies and to support the Republican Party. Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and Dominican Americans, on the other hand, tend to favor liberal views and to support the Democratic party. That being said, because the latter groups are far more numerous (Mexican Americans account for 64% of Hispanics in the U.S.) the Democratic Party is considered to be in a far stronger position with Hispanics overall.

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President Clinton’s Latino Appointees, 1998: Hispanics and Latinos made political gains under the Clinton Administration. This 1998 photograph shows President Bill Clinton and his Hispanic and Latino appointees.

The Role of the Media

Media are means of transmitting information, which is important for a democracy in which citizens must make their own informed decisions.

Learning Objectives

Give a concrete example of gatekeeping that may have political consequences

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In communications, media are the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data.
  • Media of the United States consist of several different types of communications media: television, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines, and Internet-based Web sites.
  • Ninety-nine percent of American households have at least one television, and the majority of households have more than one.
  • A central method in which the media influences the U.S. political system is through gatekeeping, a process through which information is filtered for dissemination, be it publication, broadcasting, the Internet, or some other type of communication.
  • The Internet has provided a means for newspapers and other media organizations to deliver news and, significantly, the means to look up old news. Some organizations only make limited amounts of their output available for free and charge for access to the rest.
  • The U.S. has three leading weekly newsmagazines: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report.
  • The Internet has provided a means for newspapers and other media organizations to deliver news and, significantly, the means to look up old news. Some organizations only make limited amounts of their output available for free and charge for access to the rest.

Key Terms

  • media: In communications, media (singular medium) are the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data.
  • Gatekeeping: Gatekeeping is practiced by gatekeepers, people who control access to something, for example, via a city gate. In the late twentieth century, the term came into metaphorical use, referring to individuals who decide whether a given message will be distributed by a mass medium.

In communications, media are the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data. Media are often referred to as synonymous with mass media or news media, but may refer to a single medium used to communicate any data for any purpose. Media of the United States consist of several different types of communications media: television, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines, and Internet-based Web sites. American media conglomerates tend to be leading global players, generating large revenues, as well as large opposition in many parts of the world.

A central method in which the media influences the U.S. political system is through gatekeeping, a process through which information is filtered for dissemination, be it publication, broadcasting, the Internet, or some other type of communication. Gatekeeping occurs at all levels of the media structure, from a reporter deciding which sources are included in a story to editors deciding which stories are printed or covered, and includes media outlet owners and even advertisers. This, in turn, determines to a great extent which issues will be important to Americans and on the agendas of their elected officials.

The Internet has provided a means for newspapers and other media organizations to deliver news and, significantly, the means to look up old news. Some organizations only make limited amounts of their output available for free, and charge for access to the rest. Other organizations allow their archives to be freely browsed. It is possible that the latter type obtain more influence, as they are true to the spirit of freedom of information by virtue of making it free. Anyone who has followed external links only to be confronted with a pay-to-view banner might attest that the reputations of organizations that charge is not enhanced by their charging policy, particularly when the same information is available from sources that don’t charge.

The Role of Age

There is a correlation between age and political activity/organization.

Learning Objectives

Explain the ways in which age can influence political participation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Age influences rates of political participation, and it is a determining factor in the issues people care about.
  • Older people tend to be more politically active and better organized. They are seen as being more influential in politics.
  • Young people are less likely to vote than older people.
  • The 2008 election of President Obama illustrated that young people can be organized and mobilized. Obama’s ability to mobilize young people was seen as a crucial factor in his electoral success.

Key Terms

  • new media: Interactive digital media, such as the Internet, as opposed to traditional media such as print and television.
  • AARP: AARP, formally the American Association of Retired Persons, is a United States-based non-governmental organization and interest group, founded in 1958 by Ethel Percy Andrus, PhD, a retired educator from California. The organization is based in Washington, D.C. According to its mission statement, it is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for people age 50 and over… dedicated to enhancing quality of life for all as we age, [providing] a wide range of unique benefits, special products, and services for our members. “

Age and Politics

Age is an important factor in U.S. politics because there is a correlation between age and rates of political participation and because it is a determining factor in the issues people care about.

Young people are much less likely to vote than are older people and are less likely to be politicians. The lower voting rates of young people in the U.S. help explain why things like Medicare and Social Security in the U.S. are facing looming crises—the elderly will retain many of the benefits of these programs and are unwilling to allow them to be changed even though young people will be the ones to suffer the consequences of these crises. Older people are also more organized, through organizations like the AARP, and they are more likely to vote as a block on issues that affect them directly. As a result, older individuals in the U.S. are seen as having more political power than younger people.

Mobilization According to Age

Given that there is a correlation between age and the issues relevant to those populations, some organizations have capitalized on these relationships in order to push political agendas.

Mobilizing the Elderly

The AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, is a United States -based, non-governmental organization and interest group, founded in 1958. Its mission is to improve the quality of life for retired people and people over the age of 50. On the one hand, AARP pursues its mission by providing services such as tax preparation help, discounts, and insurance for its members. On the other hand, AARP pursues its mission by mobilizing its immense resource base to lobby for policy change. AARP claims around 38 million members, making it one of the largest membership organizations in the United States. Its total revenue in 2006 was approximately $1 billion, of which $23 million was spent on lobbying. The AARP lobbies for issues that matter to older adults, such as health care and social security.

Mobilizing the Youth

Although they tend to be less organized and participate in lower numbers, young people also influence U.S. politics. Barack Obama was particularly noted for his popularity among young people. Obama’s campaign used the Internet to rally supporters and make his policies known, and the campaign’s use of the Internet targeted 18- to 29-year-olds, the age group most reliant on new media for political information. Obama’s campaign managers understood younger voters tended to ignore politicians because politicians tended to ignore issues which most concerned them. Politicians such as Obama focus on issues that are relevant to certain age groups in order to mobilize support. Obama’s ability to focus on these issues and reach out to young people is seen as one of the reasons for his success in the 2008 presidential election.

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Young Obama Supporters, 2008: Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign was notable for attracting large numbers of young voters.