The X factor Asset for whom?: can Clinton or Dole grab young voters' interest? Can anyone?

April 28, 1996|By Kerry A. White

WASHINGTON -- In the 1992 presidential campaign, a saxophone-blowing, star-shaded Bill Clinton managed to rouse a burst of political interest among the voters of Generation X, until then indelibly associated with apathy and alienation.

The attention Candidate Clinton paid to young people and to the issues of youth -- his pioneering visits to MTV and Arsenio, the Clinton-Gore cross-country bus trek -- helped him garner 44 percent of the youth vote, making young people Mr. Clinton's second-largest voting bloc, after the 60-and-up crowd.

With the 1996 election approaching, the question many are asking now is: Can Mr. Clinton, Bob Dole, or anyone else, inspire the young masses again?

The question is not a trivial one. Given the group's size, young voters have the potential to sway the election. Although hard figures aren't available (many localities do not report a voter's age), analysts estimate that the under-30 voter could make up as much as 18 percent of the electorate in November, compared with 15 percent in 1992, and might be a critical factor in states like California, Oregon, Michigan and Ohio.

Yet surprisingly, the campaigns have not yet made concerted efforts to reach out and galvanize the youth vote.

"They're up for grabs," said Bob Beckel, a Democratic political analyst who managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign. "Here's a group that by all accounts is intensely worried about the future. But no one has grabbed them. Nobody's turned them on."

The surge in young registrants is due in part to the National Voter Registration Act -- the "Motor Voter Law." Under the law, voters can register when they get a driver's license or apply for government services. Motor Voter has registered 11 million Americans, about 40 percent of whom are under the age of 30, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

But the question about young people -- possibly the reason why campaigns have not courted them aggressively -- is still, Will they vote? Traditionally, the youth vote has been unreliable, and recent local elections have found motor voters less likely to visit the polls than those who register by conventional means.

Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, puts the question somewhate differently: "There's certainly been a registration boost. But the question isn't, 'Are they going to vote?' It's, 'Why should they?' There's more stress and more cynicism and more fragmentation with this generation than with any other. They watch too much TV and read too little, and their negative feelings about government are constantly reinforced by the press."

Before the 1992 election, voting rates among eligible youths had declined with every election since 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote. The 50 percent of eligible young people who voted in 1972 fell to 37 percent by 1988.

But the 1992 presidential election was an exception. More young voters -- 44 percent of 18-to-29-year olds -- cast ballots than in the previous 20 years. (Overall turnout was 55 percent.) But youth participation plummeted again in 1994, when not even a third of eligible young voters cast ballots.

For their part, young people say that what keeps them out of the polling places is neither laziness nor apathy but lack of relevance.

Too much backbiting, says Darren Wechsler, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, and too much rhetoric that sidesteps issues most vital to him: the environment, education and crime, for example.

Several groups have sprung up to try to rouse indifferent young adults like Mr. Wechsler. Youth Vote '96, a brigade of youth and voting-advocacy groups, has a highly ambitious goal: to motivate half of eligible young people to vote in November. Unfazed by the political lethargy of her contemporaries, Therese Heliczer, the group's director, is optimistic.

"We turned out in record numbers in '92, and we'll turn out in record numbers again," she says, noting that 1996 marks the 25th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which granted 18-year-olds the right to vote. "We're way ahead of the game this election, letting the campaigns know early what's on the youth agenda."

But are the campaigns listening? The presidential aspirants have made some efforts to reach youths. For the first time ever, candidates have taken their campaigns onto the Internet -- a hub for the under-30 crowd.

And during the primaries, each delivered the standard college campus stump speech, replete with "if elected" promises. But none of the aspirants has yet made a wholehearted effort to address the issues polls show are dear to the hearts of young voters of all political stripes: job opportunities, the preservation of natural resources, college financial aid, crime and drug problems, a balanced budget and even the future of Social Security.

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