Project offers a voice to young voters

At Union College, most social science majors write a big paper before they graduate. John Tomlin is
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At Union College, most social science majors write a big paper before they graduate.

John Tomlin is doing something a little different.

Armed with a small video camera that’s about a decade old, the political science major is traveling through Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina and covering the presidential campaign. Every day, he posts a video on www.meettheprez.net; recent clips feature John McCain, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

Tomlin, 22, got the idea for his project a couple years ago, while eating dinner with his father at Cornell’s, an Italian restaurant in Schenectady.

“It just came to me,” he recalled during a phone interview from southern New Hampshire, where he was doing post-production work on a video of McCain. “I said, ‘Someone should cover the election from a young person’s perspective.’ Most media coverage is geared toward a certain audience, and it’s an audience that’s not made up of young people. People say young voters are apathetic, but they have no real media outlet.”

Union College associate professor of political science Zoe Oxley, Tomlin’s adviser, thought his focus was a good one.

“Young voters in America are very turned off by politics, and presidential campaigns tend to focus on older voters because they’re the ones who vote,” Oxley said. “That’s a real problem for our democracy.”

Although young voters are less likely to read newspapers or watch the news on TV, they are turning to new media formats, such as the Internet, for information, she said.

So far, Oxley is pleased with how Tomlin’s senior project is taking shape. By asking candidates what they’re doing to reach out to young voters, “he’s shining a spotlight on an issue other reporters probably aren’t focused on,” she said.

Tomlin already has a strong media background. He has worked at Union’s television station, TVUC, and started “News on the U,” the station’s first weekly news show. He has also interned at “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News and “The Howard Stern Show.” His father, John M. Tomlin, served as executive producer of both “A Current Affair” and “Inside Edition” and now has his own production company. He became interested in politics during a class on the subject that he took his freshman year.

“If a student didn’t have a background like that, I would be hesitant to [approve such a project],” Oxley said. “But I knew John could package a story. I knew he knew how to write. He had skills, plus a project with important, overarching goals.”

Young voters overlooked

Young adults are concerned about a lot of things, but those issues are seldom discussed on the campaign trail, Tomlin said. In a speech before college students, Democratic candidate Barack Obama talked about the steep price of college. But in debates or speeches before a broader audience, such issues are generally ignored, he said.

In his videos, footage of Tomlin commenting on the candidates is interspersed with clips of the candidates shot by Tomlin.

When he asked Romney what he was doing to reach out to young voters, the candidate seemed a bit startled, he said. In that video, Tomlin observes that most of the people in the audiences at campaign events “were senior citizens.”

In the video, Romney tells him, “I’ve done a lot of events at colleges and universities, and I will continue to do so. I think I’m doing my best to connect with young people in the state, and I think that’s a group that will be there for me on Jan. 3.”

Tomlin then notes that Romney hasn’t appeared on “The Daily Show with John Stewart” or “The Colbert Report,” news parody programs that are popular with young adults, or on MTV.

Tomlin began his trip in Iowa in the first week of December, then went to his hometown of Briarcliff Manor in Westchester County for Christmas. He’s now in New Hampshire; after the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he will head to South Carolina. He’ll follow candidates through Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when 24 states are scheduled to hold caucuses or primary elections for one or both parties. Then, he’ll write a paper about his experiences.

On the campaign trail

His routine is pretty basic, Tomlin said.

One day last week, he got up around 8 a.m., then headed to Pembroke Academy, a public high school in Pembroke, N.H., for a media session with McCain. He arrived late, missed the event and followed the “Straight Talk Express” — McCain’s campaign bus — to Insight Technology, a company that manufactures night vision goggles. From there, he went to a diner in Derry and watched McCain eat with Joe Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut.

“I’m definitely having fun with it,” Tomlin said. “It’s exciting.”

Tomlin described himself as a citizen journalist, “whatever that means,” and added, “I’m just a normal college kid.” Today, anyone can go out and “create their own content about an election,” Tomlin said.

“Most of the media coverage is about poll numbers, who’s raising money,” Tomlin said. “It’s less about the leadership qualities of the candidates and their positions on the issues. At Mitt Romney’s press conference, most of the questions were about Mike Huckabee’s surge in the polls rather than his positions. The candidates have speeches that they use at all of the events.”

Tomlin has spoken to only a few candidates, including Paul, a Republican Congressman from Texas, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who withdrew from the race after this week’s Iowa caucuses.

“Those guys seemed pretty nice,” he said.

Obama, he noted, “has really good oratory skills … he’s good at getting a crowd excited.”

Paul is also energetic, he said.

He watched former President Bill Clinton speak but didn’t think the crowd was that energetic.

As for his favorite candidate, Tomlin was noncommital.

“I’m not really sure yet,” he said. “I’m not sure who I like. I’d like to be out here for a while longer before I decide.”

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