Pulling away at the polls: Some students don’t vote like their parents

Cindy Norden was chatting with a family friend at a party in September when the topic of conversation turned to Cindy’s daughter, Megan, a GW freshman.

“Is she involved with any school organizations?” Cindy recalls her friend, a Democratic Massachusetts state representative, asking.

“Yes,” Cindy replied. “She’s a member of the GW College Republicans.”

A woman who overheard the exchange whirled around in disbelief.

“Cindy,” she said, horrified. “We have to bring Megan home right now.”

Megan Norden knows that sentiment all too well. Raised in a politically left-leaning family in Barre, Mass., she long considered herself a political conservative but kept her views secret until she arrived at GW.

As it turns out, the College Republicans’ Fulbright Hall representative has something in common with 28 percent of teenage voters in the United States, who say they are either “more liberal” or “more conservative” than their parents, according to a January 2005 Gallup poll.

Some of those students at GW say their political comings-out has led to intelligent discussions about government with their families. Their parents concede that those discussions might have even influenced their own politics.

Megan said her party affiliation was especially surprising to adults who knew her, because of her upbringing.

“I believe there are only about two other Republicans in my town,” she said about her central Massachusetts community of roughly 5,100 people.

Regardless of how many Republicans there are in her hometown, one thing is for sure: none of them are related to Megan. Her grandmother – a Massachusetts native who lives in Ohio – adorns the walls of her bedroom with anti-Bush stickers. Cindy and Megan’s father, John Norden, include among their friends two Democratic state politicians.

Since Cindy usually votes for Democrats and John is an independent who voted for John Kerry in the last presidential election, people from home assumed that Megan’s politics leaned left.

A few weeks into fall semester, John and Cindy were asking Megan the usual “how’s-school-going” questions when they inquired about their daughter’s extracurricular activities.

“I told them I was doing a couple of InterVarsity (Christian Fellowship) things and International Affairs Society. Then I told them I had joined the College Republicans,” she said. “They kind of paused.”

Neither parent was sure he or she had heard correctly.

“To me it was a big surprise,” John said. “I was shocked.”

Cindy said she thought Megan was joking.

“You don’t tell anybody things like that around here,” she said, referring to her hometown Barre. “I was really proud of her.”

With two brothers in the Navy, Megan said she believes the Republican Party is the one most supportive of American troops.

Nationally, the Gallup poll found that 7 percent of American teens consider themselves “more conservative” than their parents.

John Sides, a GW professor of political science, said that while young people tend to grow more politically independent as they separate from their parents, many people never break completely from their parents’ political viewpoints.

He cited one study, which tracked the political leanings of a sample of high school students and their parents from 1965 until 1982, that concluded that people tend to remain politically aligned with their parents well into adulthood.

That, he said, hasn’t changed.

“There is as much continuity (between parent and child voting) now as there was 30 years ago or 50 years ago,” he said.

Children who talk about politics with their parents are more likely to vote like their parents, Sides said.

That makes sophomore John Brennan, of Omaha, Neb., something of an anomaly.

He and his father, Patrick Brennan, often discussed politics during John’s high school years. Patrick and John’s mother, Lora Lea, usually voted Republican; John, the product of Catholic and Jesuit schooling, spent much of his childhood thinking he would too.

But on his 18th birthday, the former mock trial Republican majority leader woke up early to register as a Democrat, influenced heavily by his high school civics teacher.

“I got a voicemail from my dad as I was driving home,” John recalls. “He said, ‘Hello my bleeding-heart liberal son. Happy birthday.'”

Patrick left the message in good fun. He says he had no problem with his son’s Democratic allegiance and has, in fact, benefited from John’s political knowledge.

“In the last year and a half, I’ve just become a more intelligent voter because of (John),” Patrick said. “John has probably educated me more than I’ve tried to sway him.”

Sides, the political science professor, said it is feasible but unusual for students to change their parents’ minds on politics. In families where children follow politics more closely than their parents, there is sometimes a “reverse causation.”

“I think it’s possible that some parents can be swayed,” he said. “If the parents aren’t very politicized, it can be the kids who come home and talk about politics with their parents. There’s a little role-reversal there.”

Freshman John Estrada can relate. The son of Mexican immigrants turned American citizens who rarely discussed politics before the 2004 presidential race, Estrada decided entirely on his own that he was a Democrat when he was in middle school.

As he grew older and more politically active, he tried to motivate his family.

Sunday family barbecues eventually became impromptu political forums. Estrada would explain what he had learned at Dallas County Young Democrats meetings to his mother as she cleaned the home and to his father as he prepared meat for the grill. His grandparents also took a keen interest in Estrada’s political convictions, which he had to express in Spanish to everyone except his mother, who speaks English fluently.

“The vigor of a youth voicing his opinion opened up emotions they had not expressed,” Estrada said.

“(Before) they seemed to think Texas equals Republican.”

In November 2004, Estrada’s parents, grandparents and sister voted for the first time. Their presidential candidate of choice? John Kerry.

“I myself couldn’t vote, so I had five votes count in my place,” said Estrada, who did not turn 18 until December 2004.

Ted Sturman, a University psychology professor, said many parents want to think that their children provide accurate information.

“We tend to adopt attitudes from people who love us,” he said.

“In general, as people get older, they get less budge-able. But you could have a subset of middle-aged people who are willing to re-examine their politics.”

He said that people whose political persuasions differ from their parents’ likely avoid broaching the subject at family events.

“If I were voting Republican I still wouldn’t be telling my parents, and I’m 41,” he said.

Senior Stacey Garfinkle, president of the GW College Democrats, said that even though many of her groups’ members were raised by Democrats, most College Democrats members have made their own political determinations, independent from their parents.

“If you look at the College Democrats, you’re talking about people who have taken political science courses and are in the Elliott School and who are being exposed to a lot of different viewpoints,” she said.

“Clearly there is a consistent belief system among Democrats, regardless of their parents’ ideologies.”

For John and Cindy Norden, Megan’s political affiliation – and her newfound propensity to decorate walls with Republican regalia, which she has started to do in her Fulbright room – are sitting well, though Cindy warned, “it’ll be uneasy if she tries putting (a sticker) on my car.”

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