Young voters poised to flex voting muscle

On average, young people have accounted for more than 15% of voters in primaries and caucuses this year. Their share has risen 4 to 7 percentage points over 2004 in many states.

Other signs of heightened engagement:

• In five Gallup and USA TODAY/Gallup polls since mid-February, 57% of people under 30 said they have given "quite a lot" of thought to the election, up from 44% in 2004. And 87% said they plan to vote, up from 81% in 2004.

• One-quarter of voters under 30 in a recent CBS-MTV poll said they had worked on a campaign, joined a political club or attended a political rally or march. Nearly as many said a political campaign or group had contacted them about registering to vote.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that young voters are, as Obama likes to say, fired up and ready to go. Officials in this town set up the first-ever polling station on campus. Waiting in long lines at the student union, 470 people cast early ballots in two days of voting.

Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, said the Waterville, Maine, campus is "by far the most active" he's seen in 37 years there.

The leader of the College Democrats turned out 300 people for Chelsea Clinton — 15% of the student body — a day before the Maine caucuses on Feb. 10, Maisel said. Then "200 of them got on buses to go to Bangor (an hour away) to see Obama."

Older people are an active and large group of voters — nearly 24 million people older than 65 voted in the 2004 general election, according to a CIRCLE analysis. But 21 million people under 30 also voted then, and Levine says they could reach parity with seniors this time.

"You'd think from a political point of view that these are two comparable groups, and you'd want to pay comparable attention to them," he says.

In past campaigns, much of the focus has been on issues that affect older people, such as Social Security and Medicare. Younger people are more concerned, Levine says, with college costs; an 18% teen unemployment rate; and finding entry-level jobs with health benefits.

Claire Gonzalez, 24, a research assistant here, adds the environment and — yes — Social Security. "We're entering a workforce where the future of Social Security is uncertain. We're very interested in where our money is going and how it's going to be used," says Gonzalez, an Obama volunteer.

Natalie Ault, a Clinton volunteer from New Albany, Ind., works 30 hours a week at the Chamber of Commerce and an additional 10 to 15 as a waitress. "When Bill was in office I was only in high school, but I had a good job and made great money," says Ault, 25. "Our economy is in a shambles. I want things to get back to the way they were."

Perhaps driven by Obama's success with young voters, as well as several polls showing their top concern is the economy, the Democrats and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain are highlighting bread-and-butter issues important to them.

All three say they'd make college more affordable. Clinton and Obama pledge to simplify the financial aid form for college (that was Clinton's biggest applause line at a rally the night before the New Hampshire primary). Obama would let people up to age 25 stay on their parents' health insurance policies.

Outreach beyond policy

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