Will Youth Rock The Vote This Year?

Newly eligible voters are rarely roused by elections. But young-people power is real

Christen Hill sat out the 2000 Presidential election because it just didn't seem relevant to her life. But as the 21-year-old University of Tennessee sophomore begins considering her employment prospects, her attitude is changing. "This election is important because the economy is a mess, and I can barely find a job," she says.

Hill isn't the only young person experiencing a political awakening. In fact, if the once-fervent horde of Deaniacs and the rise of Internet politics are any indications, Election 2004 could get the attention of 18- to-24-year-olds historically too uninterested to bother with the hassles of registering, boning up on candidates, and finding the polling place. One possible indicator of an impending turn-up in turnout: The number of Iowa Caucus goers under 30 quadrupled from 2000, according to entrance polls.

Born in 1980 or later, the new voters are Gen Yers who entered adolescence during the booming '90s. This emerging pool of coming-of-age citizens -- roughly 4 million turn 18 each year -- "tends to be more optimistic, more supportive of government, and larger than the Generation Xers who preceded them," says William A. Galston, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland. Most telling, he says, is a UCLA study of 271,000 college freshmen that was conducted last fall. In the massive sample, 34% of respondents said keeping up with political developments is important, up from 28% in 2000.

Certainly, A crush of young voters clogging ballot booths next November seems farfetched to most election experts. "Young people are not habituated to politics," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan group. "There's nothing in the conduct of our politics that has served to engage them."

INTERNET SAVVY. Such pessimism is not unfounded. Indeed, past general elections present a dismal picture of declining participation among all age groups, with the youngest citizens the least likely to show up on Election Day. Just 28.6% of voters 18 to 24 voted in 2000, less than half the 65% rate for those 65 to 74 and well below the 58% overall rate. That may be a reflection of where politicians aimed their messages. In 2000, only 7.8% of voters were age 18 to 24, vs. 20% age 65 and over. So it's small wonder that more time was spent talking about Medicare than marijuana legalization. But this year, 17% of potential voters will be 25 and under.

A growing number of groups intent on getting out younger voters -- from World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.'s (WWE ) Smackdown Your Vote! to Harvard University's Institute of Politics -- say 2004 will be different. For one thing, new issues and an attractive candidate can make a difference. Youth turnout spiked sharply in 1992 when a 46-year-old, smooth-talking governor from Arkansas turned on young voters concerned about a sluggish economy and high unemployment. Among young people, Bill Clinton posted a 19% margin of victory in 1996 over 73-year-old former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. (By contrast, the 2000 matchup was nearly a tie among new voters, with Al Gore edging out George W. Bush among the young by just 2%.)

The Internet also figures into expectations that this could be the year of the youth. The younger the voter, the more likely they are to seek political information from the Net, which is seeing heavy use by the Democratic candidates. "We are predicting a bigger turnout among youth this year just because of the new phenomenon of the Internet [as a political tool]," says Philip Noble, publisher of PoliticsOnline, a Web-based newsletter. So, too, the issues of '04 are more apt to attract younger voters: grim employment prospects, particularly for high school grads seeking jobs in manufacturing; college tuition increases imposed by cash-strapped states; and an increasing number of new workers unable to obtain or afford health insurance.

Democrats hope to capitalize on the job-short economy and appeal to young people's more tolerant attitude toward gay rights and their anger over the loss of civil liberties under the 2001 USA Patriot Act. "The Ashcroft factor has united [young] liberals with minorities and given them the sense that government is getting too intrusive," says Hans Riemer, political director of Rock the Vote, one of many groups working to turn out young voters.

The GOP is fighting back with its own programs. A 2002 Yale University study, cited by party strategists on both sides, shows that peer-to-peer contact is the most effective means of firing up the young to register and vote for a specific candidate. And Republicans are counting on over 13,300 youthful "Team Leaders" organizing affinity groups such as snowmobilers and stock car racing fans.

Recent polls are divided over Bush's support among the young, however. In a Newsweek GENext Poll in late January, 54% of registered voters in the 18-to-29-year-old group approved of Bush's handling of economic issues and 57% approved of his foreign policy record. But a Feb. 1 Gallup Poll of the same age group showed 52% dissatisfied with Bush's overall performance, with 47% approving.

Driving the frantic search for the fountain of youth by the two major parties is the memory of razor-thin margins in several states in 2000. Unlike the Republicans' sway over Christian Evangelicals and the Democrats' historic hold on a majority of African Americans, neither party seems to have a lock on notoriously fickle young people. That's why they have such potential power -- if they only choose to use it.

By Paul Magnusson, with Stephanie Drew, in Washington

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