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Parties Scramble for Youth Vote

Cecilia Torres, 21, left, and Fannia Ibarra, 19, participate in Sean
Cecilia Torres, 21, left, and Fannia Ibarra, 19, participate in Sean "P. Diddy" Combs's 2004 voter turnout campaign, which targeted young voters. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)

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By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 16, 2006

In 2004, young people voted in the highest percentage they had since 1992, and in the third-highest percentage in the nine presidential elections since a constitutional amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age to 18.

In 2005, overall voter turnout declined in the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, except for the student-dense precincts with big voter turnout projects.

Because of numbers like this, political parties and campaigns this year are lavishing attention on a new generation of young voters. They are investing in staff, studying ways to use new technology and promoting legislation geared toward young people's interests. And while young people currently favor Democrats, analysts say they are not yet anchored long-term to any political party.

It is a shift from years past, when young people tended to be the first group cut from target lists of potential voters. In some ways, that made sense: Despite organizations pouring millions of dollars each cycle into registering these voters -- often using techniques such as melding politics and rock concerts -- the number of young people voting went steadily down.

But in the 2004 presidential election, when the overall electorate showed a four-percentage-point increase in turnout from 2000, the turnout rate among people ages 18 to 24 increased by 11 points -- to 47 percent from 36 percent.

The spike was attributed, in part, to intense voter turnout efforts and a highly polarized election. But people who study this generation -- known as Generation Y, millennials and even DotNets -- say it is also disposed to be more politically active and passionate.

"The millennials are quite idealistic and concerned about a whole range of issues, compared to the Xers, which tend to be pessimistic and detached," said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland, and a member of Generation X.

Heather Smith, 30, a veteran of youth mobilization efforts, has seen this budding interest in young voters. In 2004, she helped run a $9 million project to register and turn out young voters that contributed to the voting spike that year. The project's successor, Young Voter Strategies, at George Washington University, tries to convince political parties and candidates that young people are a crucial constituency and then teaches the groups how to reach them.

While research shows that young people use cellphones, the Internet and e-mail every day, it also shows that peer-to-peer efforts in the offline world and reminders to vote on Election Day are most effective.

Since January, Smith's group -- working with Democratic and Republican pollsters and consultants -- has met with nearly 100 campaign managers, consultants and staffers from different campaigns nationwide.

The group has also briefed national party officials and congressional staffers in Washington, and Smith and colleagues say they have received queries from advisers to two top potential 2008 candidates, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

"Campaigns and the political establishment are learning from what we're doing. Young voters could make a difference in a close election and could build a party for the future," Smith said. "There's certainly some effort to figure out how to reach out to them."


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