WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, Republican confidence about presidential politics was hinged on two facts:
States with the fastest-growing populations were Republican and those with declining populations were largely Democratic. And younger voters -- those voting for the first time or those coming of age in the Reagan era -- wanted to keep a Republican in the White House.
That latter trend appears to be reversing itself in this election year, as numerous polls indicate that 18-to-29-year-old voters, troubled by the slumping economy, are forsaking their Republican loyalties.
"For the last 12 years, younger voters have been the strength of the Republican coalition at the national level," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall, whose research indicates a significant defection among that group from the Republican camp.
"First and foremost, it's driven by the economy," she said. "Younger voters feel personally that they are no longer going to be able to attain what they hoped to attain in their economic futures."
Four years ago, TV network exit polls gave President Bush a healthy 6-point advantage over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis among 18-to-29-year-olds, continuing a pattern begun by Ronald Reagan in two previous elections. In 1984, Mr. Reagan held nearly a 20-percentage-point advantage over Democrat Walter Mondale with the age group.
Nationally, 18-to-29-year-olds accounted for 22 percent of the vote in 1988. At the time, GOP pollster Robert Teeter -- now Mr. Bush's campaign director -- talked of a political realignment built on the loyalty of younger voters.
If Mr. Bush could sew up the youngest voters, Mr. Teeter argued, "you are going to see Republican pluralities dominate for most of the rest of our lifetimes."
Now, 37 days before the general election, there is little talk of any permanent shift in voting patterns. A host of national polls indicate that since the Democratic National Convention in July, the youngest voters have moved toward the Democratic ticket, although many of them stopped to examine Ross Perot's candidacy at the height of the Texan's popularity.
An MTV poll of 1,006 18-to-29-year-old potential voters surveyed Sept. 20-24 showed Mr. Clinton leading with 54 percent to 30 percent for Mr. Bush. Recent polls by CBS News, Times-Mirror, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal offer similar results.