Rob Starr, a senior at the University of Florida, is watching the political winds. He is president of the elite Florida Blue Key honorary fraternity, a training ground for Florida politicians for the last half-century, a place to make connections. Eight of the last 10 Florida governors, all Democrats, were members.
Starr has a Ronald Reagan bumper sticker on his car and his friends think of him as a "closet Republican." But he remains a registered Democrat, at least for the moment.
"There's stability in the Democratic Party. It takes guts to work for a Republican in Florida," he said. "It's a big gamble for your future if you switch. That's why I'm waiting to see what happens the next few years."
Starr knows what is happening in his generation; he just isn't sure if it's a temporary or permanent phenomenon. When Reagan, the oldest president in American history, captured the nation's youth vote in 1984, young white southerners led the charge. In Florida, the southern state with the fewest blacks, 71 percent of voters under 25 supported Reagan, according to ABC News exit polls.
"Reagan is sort of a role model for my generation. He embodies the spirit of success and justice and liberty," Starr said. "Students view the Republicans as the Yuppie party. It is 'in' socially to be a Republican. Because of the Yuppie movement people aren't afraid to say, 'Wealth is fine.' "
In six recent Washington Post/ABC polls, 70 percent of white southern voters under age 26 identified with the Republican Party, compared to 58 percent of young white voters in the nation as a whole. By contrast, 47 percent of southern whites over age 40 call themselves Republicans, while 48 percent say they are Democrats.
Many middle-class southern white students said they see the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln as the party of the future, a party that promotes change within a framework of conservative values with which they felt comfortable.
"The modern young southerner responds to the Republican platform because it talks about God and family and service to country. And the Democratic Party is stale," said Dietrich von Lehe, an ex-Marine in law school at the University of South Carolina. "The state house is just frozen in the good old boys' control."
"The feeling you get is that Republicans are on the move," said Jay Rogers, another law student. "One reason is that the ideology of the northern Democratic candidates is to the left of what most southerners are for."
"The southern Democrats have died," declared Chase Foster, another South Carolina law student. "Conservative individuals have gotten the courage to declare themselves Republicans. I think a lot of it had to do with Jimmy Carter. People here felt like they'd been betrayed by one of their own."
Carter and Reagan split the southern youth vote in 1980. The abrupt change in four years worries Democrats. Polls taken for Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) indicated that whites in the 18-to-25 age group identify with the Republican Party by 63 to 17 percent. "It's because of the Reagan-Carter contrast," said Charles T. (Bud) Ferillo, who is running the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Mike Daniel. "Reagan cast a Republican glow over local candidates."
The only campus visited by Post reporters that offered any comfort for Democrats was Ole Miss, where students interviewed were still caught up in the internal battles of the state Democratic Party.
"Where I come from, either you're a Democrat or you just don't count," said Jim Warren, a University of Mississippi law student. "The bottom line is that the Democrat Party services the people where I live better than the Republican Party does, 'cause the Republican Party as I see it says, 'Let's take care of what we have,' and the Democratic Party says, 'Let's help you get something,' and where I come from, you need to get something because it's furniture factories, it's plowing, it's working at the Big Red Super Market, that's where it's at."