A Push for the Youth Vote

They may be elusive and unreliable, but they're worth courting

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Jon Tester couldn't have done it without the kids. The Montana Democrat with the unfashionable flattop now boasts cool digs in the U.S. Senate, thanks to a surge in voting among 18-to-29-year-olds that lifted him over Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in 2006. Four years earlier, the cohort composed just 8 percent of Montana's vote. Last year, that number jumped to 17 percent. Most voted Democratic.

Historically low turnout has damaged the reputation of young voters among politicians. But Democrats are seeing hope in what some call the millennial generation—those born between 1977 and 1997. Where Republicans carried the youth vote in the 1980s, Democrats have the bragging rights today. Not only are young people re-engaging in politics; polls show them strongly opposed to the war in Iraq and liberal on social issues, making the elusive youth vote worth new effort.

"All elections are gained at the margins," says Hans Riemer, who coordinates youth outreach for Sen. Barack Obama, "so anywhere you can gain a small advantage is potentially worthwhile." Sen. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama have hired national youth directors. Four years ago, only Howard Dean among Democrats had such a coordinator. Now, Democrats are gambling on this group to show up on Election Day 2008.

Among pollsters, no cohort receives more skepticism than the young. In 1972, one year after 18-year-olds won the right to vote, 52 percent of people ages 18 to 24 voted. But numbers plummeted for decades in what Kat Barr of Rock the Vote calls "a cycle of mutual neglect," where youth and politics grew increasingly apart. In 2004, after an effort by third parties to engage the young, exit polls showed their share of the vote remained at roughly 17 percent. "I haven't seen a lot of evidence that any of the registration campaigns targeted to young people had a measurable effect," says Democratic pollster Thomas Riehle. But Barr calls the total share misleading because the youth vote was swallowed by an increased overall turnout. According to census figures, 49 percent of all 18-to-29-year-olds voted in 2004, compared with 40 percent in 2000. In the 2006 midterms, 24 percent voted, compared with 22 percent in 2002.

Rock the vote. Unlike 2004, when only advocacy groups staked out concerts to register young voters, the campaigns themselves are now scrambling to get hip with the kids. Last week, Clinton unveiled her plan to make college affordable and answered questions with hundreds of Students for Hillary members. This fall, the campaign plans to direct young supporters to a website that shows them how to host low-dollar fundraisers.

Obama's campaign has assigned at least a dozen staffers to the youth-vote effort, as well as thousands of volunteers. Young people are not "going to magically appear on Election Day," Riemer says. "Campaigns before might have been hoping for a youth-vote turnout. Hope is not a plan. We have people out there every day getting names."

Progressive groups nationwide are relaunching their own efforts. Forward Montana, which helped push voters to the polls in 2006, organizes local debates, with a full bar and comedy acts.

The GOP, which has seen its support among youth erode, is also paying attention. Mitt Romney's five sons are hitting campuses and blogging. The campaign also allows students who raise more than $1,000 for Romney to keep 10 percent. The program has reaped more than $100,000. Meanwhile, most major campaigns, on both sides, are using networking sites like MySpace to locate and nurture supporters. And text messages to cellphones are now commonplace.

Some worry that the GOP is losing ground among future voters. Though skeptical that youth voters are increasing, Steve Lombardo, a GOP pollster, admits, "There is definitely concern among Republicans." Indeed, research has shown that voting for a certain party becomes a pattern through life. Next year, the millennials will be 50 million strong. That could make one heck of a party for Democrats, for a long time to come.