Generation Y: Ready to Rock the 2008 Election

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Waiting to hear Barack Obama speak under the twinkling chandeliers of the old Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H., Nina Fuentes, 21, explained her draw to the presidential process: "They say young people are apathetic. Well, he's bringing us into the process. He's offering inspiration and hope that we can make a difference. . . . What I like is that his success is coming from grass roots, from the bottom up."

"Obama," says Fuentes, a college senior who brought a group of high-schoolers from Illinois to witness the primary, "empowers us into thinking we can make a difference."

You can see it in their faces, their body language, an excitement for reasons they are almost too young to articulate. The same thrill was there nearly half a century ago with John F. Kennedy, and a few years later with his brother Bobby, when hordes of young people pushed the police barricades on Kings Highway in Brooklyn to touch him during his 1968 presidential run.

And Obama is not the only contender reeling them in. Across the political spectrum, this presidential election is shaping up as a banner year for young activists and voters. As they help build Texas Republican Ron Paul's unexpected cult following, knock on doors for Hillary Clinton, and show up at rallies to tote signs and listen to John McCain, they also are finding themselves to be a valued voting bloc.

"Apathy is no longer cool," says Marc Morgenstern, executive director of Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan organization that targets 18-year-olds and has registered a quarter of a million voters so far this year. "They feel the candidates are listening to them."

This time, they are proving their passion at the polls. Young voters have turned out in record numbers for the first two state contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, spurring some candidates to step up their outreach. Turnout of 18- to 29-year-olds in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary climbed to 43 percent of eligible voters, compared with 18 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2000, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland. In Iowa, 22 percent of all caucusgoers were under 30, compared with only 9 percent in 2000.

Following her Democratic primary win Tuesday, Sen. Hillary Clinton made time for an interview on MTV, telling viewers, "There is a movement for political involvement. . . . My support among young people will grow." She pledged that her campaign would do more to reach them.

And Sen. John McCain, the Republican primary winner, addressed a rally yesterday in Pontiac, Mich., filled with students from South Christian High School like senior Natalie Visser, who said she was "keeping an open mind." By the end of the speech, McCain had won her over. "I like his ideas about developing the jobs, and the troops in Iraq and stuff," Visser said, referring to McCain's continued support for the war.

Twin teenage brothers in Oregon launched a Web site for Mike Huckabee last year (Hucksarmy.com) that has raised $100,000, set up networks in 43 states and attracted thousands of volunteers for the former Arkansas governor. Huckabee has been using rocker cred to appeal to the younger generation. At a huge rally at Furman University in South Carolina last night, he entertained the crowd by playing bass with a local band.

The war is the top issue for college students who plan to vote, according to research collected by several groups that track young voter trends, followed by the economy, health care and the environment. In focus groups, young voters bring up wanting to be inspired by politicians who are positive.

According to the Youth Vote Coalition, 64 percent of this age group is registered to vote. In 2004, 20 million of them voted, up 4 million from 2000, according to Rock the Vote. And, importantly, this figure grew at a faster rate than general population growth for the age group, according to U.S. Census data.

Connor Kinkead, 19, one of a group of Massachusetts college students who came to New Hampshire to observe and volunteer, heard McCain at a Manchester rally. Kinkead, a young man from an affluent Republican family, picked Obama. A registered independent in his home state of New Jersey, he said he started out favoring McCain, but decided recently that Obama "can lead us where we need to go.


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