An Unsettled Contest

A wide-open race brings out the voters

Election 2008

January 10, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- More Iowans left their living rooms to caucus with neighbors than ever before. In New Hampshire, local election officials worried about running out of ballots.

The early voting of the past week hasn't settled much but has revealed this truth: Voters are wildly enthusiastic about helping select the next president.

Record turnout in New Hampshire and Iowa was a product of the most unsettled presidential contest in decades, analysts say. There is no incumbent seeking re-election or a sitting vice president looking to advance, and no clear front-runner in either party.

"It's competitive," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies voter participation. "We know that when people are interested and the elections are competitive, people will turn out."

Civics teachers have fretted for years over shrinking voting rates, lamenting that Americans took part in elections in far lower percentages than in many other democratic countries.

That worry is fading, for now.

Voters seem ready to move past the Bush administration, McDonald and other political veterans said. Continued frustration with U.S. involvement in Iraq and concern over the economy and the environment are all motivating participation, they said.

Young people are flocking to the polls in numbers higher than ever before, continuing a trend spotted several years ago.

Voters under age 30, taking part in their first or second presidential election, belong to a deeply involved generation that volunteers at higher rates than their elders, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, at the University of Maryland, College Park.

But as they head to the polls, it is not clear whether younger voters are forging lifetime habits or are satisfied with their options.

`The big question'

"The big question has been, would they see voting as a helpful way to do anything about these issues?" said Levine, who surveyed 400 college students last year. "I think that they are ready to get the pitch, but they are not yet sold on the idea that the political system is the way to solve their problems."

Laura Scott, 33, a Sierra Club volunteer from New Hampshire, said candidates were slow to address the issues she cares most about - even after a year of campaigning in her state.

"In the beginning, they paid lip service to the environment - they said they cared about it, but there was no specifics," she said. "Over the last few months, they've stepped it up."

Still, Scott never considered not voting, even though she and most of her friends were "tired of politics as usual."

Paying attention

"People are paying a little closer attention this time around," said Abraham Tucker, 30, a graduate student studying genetics at the University of New Hampshire. He believes that the large field of qualified candidates in both parties has fueled interest.

"There are so many different people running for president, with different personalities and backgrounds," he said. "There's someone for everyone."

The concerns of young voters don't appear to be vastly different from those of older ones, exit polls show. And older voters also cast ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire in record numbers, said Mark Kitchens, an AARP spokesman.

"All Americans want change, regardless of age," Kitchens said.

Increased participation comes as campaigns are trying to reach voters through methods unheard of just a few years ago, including social networking Web sites and online videos.

"It's no coincidence that you are watching higher turnout coincide with these new tools," said Peter Leyden, director the New Politics Institute, a liberal San Francisco-based think tank.

Voters are no longer "passive consumers" of political messages, Leyden said, and new technologies "are just drawing them into the fabric of politics, and are energizing the electorate."

The high number of voters getting involved is posing challenges to campaigns, said Jim Dornan, a Republican strategist who is not aligned with a candidate in this election.

All campaigns work with the same lists of voters who have participated in past elections, he said. But new voters are harder to identify and win over.

Need to adapt

"The candidates that it hurts are the ones that don't have the campaign staff to adapt," Dornan said. "It's the ability of a campaign staff to go and find voters that are new."

Before the New Hampshire results, it appeared that Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, and Republican Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, were the main beneficiaries of young and first-time voters.

Obama has spoken on the campaign trail of sensing a movement coalescing around him. But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign recovered quickly after her third-place Iowa finish, riding the support of women voters - who turned out in large numbers - to a New Hampshire victory.

`Ginned up'

"Are the Democrats ginned up? Absolutely," said Dornan. "They despise Bush. They are against the war. They have great candidates."

But Republicans are also engaged, he said. Huckabee built a quiet network that included home-school parents for his Iowa win. Sen. John McCain came back in Iowa by tapping into the enthusiasm of independent voters as he did eight years ago.

Political veterans said they expect the enthusiasm to continue at least until Feb. 5, when more than 20 states vote. But after the party nominees become clear, future participation will likely drop.

"People will stop voting, because there is no longer a reason to participate," said McDonald, the George Mason professor.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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