Dodging the first snowflakes of the season, many first-time voters turned out at Gordon Commons on the UW-Madison campus Tuesday to cast their ballots. The question of how they came to such an important decision for the first time yielded a variety of answers and, surprisingly, not one of them included campaign ads as a means of persuasion.
The presidential debates proved to be very influential in terms of not only getting students to pay attention to the 2012 election, but also in helping them decide for whom to vote. Rose Dorazio, 21, of San Francisco, said one of her favorite moments of the campaign came when "Romney and Obama were in each other's faces during the second debate," she said Tuesday. "It got pretty heated."
Ian Frutiger, 19, of Cambridge, Wisconsin, said he got his information mainly from the debates as well. But he added another influence: lived experience.
"I have lived through Barack Obama's presidency and I've paid attention to what Mitt Romney said he is going to do, and hopefully he does it," Frutiger said.
Obama's two appearances in Madison had an impact for several students, though most only mentioned his October 4 speech on Bascom Hill.
Ilyssa Levi, 20, of Rye Brook, New York, said the fact that Romney didn't come to Madison and that Obama came twice was "the most interesting thing about the election." She added that she thought students "might have been influenced by Obama coming and Romney not coming."
Expressing a frustration held by many Americans, Levi said "students have a hard time finding unbiased sources and feel frustrated by the lack of honesty and clarity in the commercials."
Thus, first-time voters like Maddie Hailer, 18, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, looked to television news outlets. However, she shunned those ubiquitous political commercials.
"I'm not big on negative campaign ads," she said. "They are skewed and biased and leave out information. They can make anyone sound good, and anyone sound bad."
Laura Zimny, 18, of Woodbury, Minnesota, agreed. "I've seen the commercials. I don't like them very much because most of them are against the other party rather than saying what they are going to do."
Researching on their own
The presidential election consumed most of the attention for first-time voters at the expense of local and statewide U.S. Senate races.
"Tammy Baldwin, Tommy Thompson, whatever. The presidential election is definitely the most important to me," said Frutiger.
But some out-of-state students, such as Levi, felt a responsibility to find out more about the local elections. "The most research I did was about Tammy and Tommy. I felt I had a better understanding of Obama and Romney and I was fed up with the obnoxious ads."
Levi actually sought out campaign websites as a source of information about the candidates. The same was true for Regina Siedow, 18, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who said much of her process for evaluating the presidential candidates came from "looking at both of their websites, and comparing and contrasting the ideas."
Online research didn't stop at the campaign websites. Many students said they used Twitter to keep abreast of day-to-day campaign news. They used it to get direct information from both presidential candidates and as an aggregate source for reporting from online news media outlets.
When it came to another major social-media network, Facebook, the reactions were a little less enthusiastic. Many of their friends choose to post on Facebook about their political choices, but the first-time voters I spoke with felt those comments weren't very helpful in making their choices.
Eli Boarick, 19, of Oakland, California, said, "I read [Facebook] but I don't really find it relevant." Alex Duren, 19, of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, said he "stayed away from social networking during the race."
And despite the campaign appearances, television, the Internet and social media, the one constant as the major deciding factor for these young people remained their parents.
Frutiger put it simply: "My parents have been my biggest influence. Living with them for 18 years, well, it kind of sheds off on you."