In 2004 the country experienced record turnouts that resulted in a slim victory for President Bush. Unfortunately, as was also the case in 2000, the election was marred in controversy. Despite registering the highest turnout for a presidential election since 1992, the election process in 2004 would end with accusations of vote fraud and voter suppression, highlighting, in particular, voting irregularities in the state of Ohio. In 2000 Americans watched with disbelief as the fiasco in Florida unfolded with high-priced lawyers arguing over chads as a means to decide the election of the President of the United States. For many people of color, especially African Americans, the reports of purged voting roles, which disqualified registered African American voters, was confirmation again that there exist fundamental flaws in the practice of democracy in the United States. In response to these democratic troubles, numerous scholars, pundits and average Americans pondered whether the controversies surrounding the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in conjunction with the low approval ratings for President Bush would lead to a dramatic decline in not only voting among the populace in 2008 but also their general confidence in the fairness and legitimacy of the political system, especially among young people.
Almost as if it was dictated by the election gods, the 2008 primary season has proven to be the antidote needed for the ailing democratic process so starkly visible in 2000 and 2004. With the candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the country was invited to participate in an historic race for the Democratic presidential nomination. And participate we did. With the unsurpassed turnouts for primary voting recorded in numerous states, some have suggested that we are witnessing the reinvigoration of participation, civic engagement, and trust in government, especially among a younger generation. Interest and participation in the primary races for the presidential nomination and now the general election have spanned age, race, gender, and, to some degree, class stratification. Across the country and around the world, individuals have watched with anticipation for the possible uprising of democracy from below. And most exhilarating for many has been the introduction of record numbers of new voters, many of them younger Americans, coming to the process with a restored belief that they can reclaim their government and their futures.
We currently inhabit a political environment built around the rhetoric and possibility of change. As researchers, we want to know if and what type of change can be enacted over the next few years. Specifically, we are interested in the impact of Obama’s winning on possible changes in participation, civic activity, feelings of political alienation and trust, and racial and gender attitudes and interactions. Studying these questions over time with a nationally representative panel of respondents provides us with the unique opportunity to explore if and how this political moment might be used to expand individuals’ civic and political attitudes and behavior.