Young voters poised to flex voting muscle

On a spring day warm enough for sunbathing, John Gillard and Josh Hall waited patiently in line at the Indiana University student union to cast their first votes — Gillard for Barack Obama, Hall for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The bad news for Democrats: Hall and Gillard say they might vote Republican this fall if their presidential pick loses. The good news for democracy: Both say they'll definitely vote.

Hall, 18, and Gillard, 20, are part of a surge in voters under 30 that has changed the composition of the primary electorate and could at last turn young people into political players with clout.

Once people cast their first vote, voter-behavior researchers say, they get over their apprehensions and tend to show up at the polls.

"Voting is a habit-forming activity," says Donald Green, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. "The fact that so many young people have now voted … is a sign that we should expect higher-than-average voter turnout among young people in the fall."

If this season's patterns hold today in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, voters under 30 are headed for increases not just in turnout but also in their share of the electorate.

"All signs point to a continuing upward trend," says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a University of Maryland research center on civic engagement and youth. "These people will be more involved for their life to come."

For many years, young voters have been the dog that didn't bark. Each election has been heralded as the breakthrough year in which they finally would demonstrate their strength at the polls, but they've fallen short.

There's no guarantee, of course, that young voters will flock to the polls or that they will achieve critical mass. Obama is driving much of the primary-season youth vote, and some young people say they'll stay home if he isn't nominated.

In the 2004 general election, young voters did turn out in force — but so did everyone else. Voters under 30 held steady at about 18% of the electorate.

This year looks different for many reasons, topped by the Democrats' long, heated contest between a 60-year-old former first lady and a charismatic newcomer who is 46 and African-American. Youth turnout also is up somewhat on the Republican side, in part because of Texas Rep. Ron Paul — the anti-war, anti-tax iconoclast whose backers sparked a brushfire on the Internet.

The appeal of individual contenders is far from the only ingredient in the mix. Campaigns are doing intensive outreach to young people this year and making unprecedented use of the Internet to mobilize them. And the issues on voters' minds — the Iraq war and the economic slowdown — are potent.

"We have all these factors firing on all cylinders," says Michael McDonald, a turnout analyst at George Mason University. "It really does seem to be a perfect storm."

Out in force for the primaries

Surveys of voters leaving the polls this year show that youth turnout, the percentage of young people eligible to vote who participated in primaries and caucuses, rose in 15 states where comparisons with 2004 or 2000 were possible. It doubled in Louisiana and Massachusetts, CIRCLE says; tripled in Georgia, Iowa, Missouri and Texas; quadrupled in Tennessee.

By another measure, 22% of Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa were under 30. That's up 5 percentage points from 2004 and the same share as those over 65, typically the most reliable voters.

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

The trio's efforts to cultivate young students, activists and professionals are not limited to policy. "Generation Obama" chapters sponsor $25 and $50 fundraising lunches, concerts and other events, often via Facebook. Clinton's "Hillblazers" website urges "young leaders" to volunteer, donate and tell friends why they like "Hillary."

Chelsea Clinton, 28, has been campaigning for her mother on campuses all over. Meghan McCain, 23, mixes fashion, music and politics on a campaign blog. One recent photo showed her father, 71, wearing a big grin. The caption: "He had so much fun at the MTV Forum."

Obama's daughters are only 6 and 9, but he is his own youth envoy. He's won most under-30 voters in contests so far — about 60% vs. 40% for Clinton, according to surveys of people after they voted.

On Facebook, Obama has nearly 800,000 supporters compared with about 150,000 for Clinton and 119,000 for McCain. Last week, Obama drew more than 12,000 to a rally here, five days after Clinton spoke to 5,000 in the same hall.

Ben Smith, a writer for Politico, has been tracking the generation gap. Last month, he cited as emblematic an exchange between Obama and an employee at a Foot Locker store in Scranton. "What are the new kicks everyone's looking at?" Obama asked an employee. "The Jordans," he was told. "The Jordans? That's old-school," he replied. "What about the LeBrons?"

Clinton received a rare nod from a college newspaper in that state (the University of Pennsylvania's Daily Pennsylvanian). She also held half the white youth vote against Obama, one reason for her 9-percentage-point victory last month.

'Everything we do … matters'

A day after Obama lost Pennsylvania, Tim Granholm, president of IU Students for Obama, jokingly ordered about 30 volunteers to stop "mourning" and sign up to publicize early voting. "Everything we do from this point really matters. It's going to be close here," Granholm, 22, told them a few days before he graduated Saturday.

On the first day of on-campus voting, Obama volunteers set up an information table and handed out reminders. A half-block away, Clinton volunteers had their own table and were handing out fliers advertising her upcoming visit.

"The whole family's been here. We had Chelsea, we had Bill, and now we have her. They definitely haven't given up on the students," said AnnElyse Gibbons, 20, a legal affairs major and president of IU Students for Hillary Clinton.

Hall and Gillard are part of a group that Green says has been pulled in this year by hot competition and candidates with appeal to independents and across party lines: "young people who tend to have weaker party attachments."

Hall, a freshman from Noblesville, Ind., said he likes Clinton because "she offers a long-term plan" for the economy. He'd consider McCain, he says, if McCain chooses a moderate running mate.

Gillard of Schererville, Ind., is a freshman who supports Obama. "He mentions fiscal integrity more than she does. That's one of my main concerns as an accounting major. … His health care plan is a little more realistic, and that's important, too," Gillard said.

"I'll still vote in the fall regardless of who gets the nomination," he said. His current order of preference: Obama, McCain, Clinton.