Issues, Internet drawing young voters

Campaign dynamic changed as youths embrace politics

December 14, 2003|By Tim Jones and Flynn McRoberts | Tim Jones and Flynn McRoberts,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MADISON, Wis. - The Howard Dean for president placard on the wooden pole was bent like a taco as Mitchel Wallace, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin, struggled against a stiff wind and horizontal snow.

"Drop Bush, not bombs," Wallace bellowed repeatedly one day last week as scores of students walked across the library mall, most of them ignoring the leaflets he and another Dean volunteer were passing out.

Every four years, young people eagerly flock to presidential candidates, performing the campaign scut work and promoting an image of youthful exuberance for the cause. And nearly every four years, a majority of 18- to 24-year-olds, a bloc of 24 million people, don't vote.

But as the presidential campaigns prepare for caucuses and primaries starting next month, there are signs - some anecdotal, others measured by polls - of rising and uncharacteristic interest in politics among young people. While the war in Iraq, the environment and the economy are major issues fueling interest in the presidential campaign, the Internet has emerged as a powerful campaign tool allowing young people unprecedented access to the political debate.

No one is suggesting that young people will suddenly start voting in the same proportions as their parents and grandparents, who are about twice as likely to vote as the younger generation.

But the combination of issues and technology has altered the campaign dynamic in ways that could stimulate the turnout of young voters, who have a three-decade history of lethargy.

A recent poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for MTV found that four in 10 respondents ages 18 to 24 say they will definitely vote in next year's presidential election. That figure is 30 percent higher than the response from four years ago.

"Clearly the war is of huge concern to young voters, who are wondering if they are going to have to fight and die in Iraq. This is something that this generation thought they'd never have to participate in," said Ian Rowe, vice president of strategic partnerships at MTV.

"The drip, drip, drip of casualties is making a hit," Rowe said. "They realize that foreign policy is something that's not abstract [and] only happening to other people."

Linda Sax, who directs the University of California, Los Angeles' annual survey of the nation's students entering four-year colleges and universities, said, "We're seeing evidence that the severe decline has started to recover. We think the significant decline bottomed out in 2000."

The evidence of new interest in politics has been building since the disputed 2000 presidential election, Sax said, because the Florida recount undercut the public cynicism that individual votes don't count.

Two recent surveys from Harvard University's Institute of Politics found that college students are politically independent and in position to become the critical swing votes in next year's presidential election. Eight in 10 students said they will definitely or probably vote next year, one study said.

In Iowa, where the Jan. 19 caucus is the first test for the nine Democratic presidential contenders, election officials say they are noticing a surge in interest among young people. Tom O'Neill, the deputy commissioner of elections for Dubuque County, home to three colleges, said voter registration among college students is up.

O'Neill, who has run elections for 16 years, said he expects interest to increase even more when college students in Dubuque return from their winter break early next month.

The youth vote has always been a slumbering giant. Even after the Vietnam War era political clamor to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, young people did not embrace the new right with overwhelming vigor.

Fifty-five percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 1972 presidential election, the first for the lowered voting age. With the exception of an uptick in the 1992 election, turnout has not topped 50 percent since then. It was 42 percent in 2000.

That year, according to Voter News Service exit polls, support for George W. Bush and Al Gore was divided almost evenly among 18- to 29-year-olds. But a poll last month from the Pew Research Center found that Bush has lost significant support among young voters, with 18- to 29-year-olds leaning Democratic 60 percent to 40 percent.

Responding to a poll, though, is not the same as voting, and there is ample reason to interpret signs of renewed political interest among young people with caution. The same Pew poll found that among 18- to 21-year-olds, only 42 percent are registered to vote.

"We're seeing a little more intensity, perhaps more associated with Dean, and that's probably related to the technological dimension. But we still haven't seen the proof of the pudding in voting and in the caucuses," said Michael Traugott, a political science professor and senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

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