A Sept. 26 article incorrectly identified one of three states where the group 21st Century Democrats is registering and mobilizing young voters. The states are Oregon, Minnesota and Ohio, not Missouri. (Published 9/28/04)
The students passing through the quad on the way to classes the other day could not help but notice Robert Lee. They had lots of competition for their attention -- campus organizations, lined up in a train of folding tables along the walkways, were holding their annual membership fair -- but Lee was the guy in the suit.
"Sign up for the College Republicans?" he asked every passing student. "Help reelect George Bush?"
Lee, despite his baggy, olive suit, was supposed to blend in on the University of Nevada at Reno campus. At 23 and newly graduated from Colorado State, he is part of a crew of 60 field coordinators that the Republican Party has dispatched to 40 states in a massive peer-to-peer recruitment drive. The goal, of course, is to swell the Republican ranks among 18-to-24-year-olds in time for the November elections, especially in the all-important swing states.
In Nevada, a state that recent polls say is up for grabs, "it's going extremely well," Lee said. "We've recruited about 900 College Republicans in this state -- beyond our goal of 750 -- in just a few weeks."
In the old days of President Richard M. Nixon and the Vietnam War -- if the Vietnam War can be considered old this election year -- campus activism was all liberal, Republicans kept their politics to themselves, and conservatives were all abashed. But young people, like older ones, are more fluid in their political affiliations nowadays.
In what promises to be a banner year for young voters -- polls and anecdotal evidence from myriad get-out-the-vote operations suggest that more 18-to-24-year-olds plan to vote this year than in any year since 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1972 -- the Republicans seem to be grabbing their share.
A Washington Post-ABC poll, taken shortly after the Republican National Convention, showed support for President Bush among college students increasing by 14 percentage points since Aug. 1, while Sen. John F. Kerry's support dropped 14 percentage points. Kerry's support among voters 18 to 29 dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent that month while Bush's share of the young vote increased to 46 percent, a 28-point turnaround in five weeks.
Still, polls released over the last week show that the race has tightened since the Republican convention, nearly back into a statistical dead heat. Surveys by the Harvard University Institute of Politics show that fully half of college-age voters are fluid in their politics -- swing voters, in other words -- who can be persuaded which way to vote based on particular issues rather than political ideologies.
For college students, the war in Iraq, the economy -- specifically, job opportunities -- and anxiety over rising tuition rates seem to top most lists of concerns. But because neither candidate owns any of those issues at this point, young people remain one of the most sought-after voting blocks up for grabs this election.
Republicans have been aggressive. But get-out-the-vote efforts by Democrats and groups working to help unseat Bush this year also smell success. The 21st Century Democrats' Young Voter Project, which has launched a massive voter registration and mobilization effort in three swing states -- Minnesota, Oregon and Missouri -- has made nearly 133,000 in-person contacts with young people, registered 14,000 Democratic voters and signed up 12,000 volunteers as of last week -- before a major week-long push to register and recruit college Democrats that begins this week.
John Torrence, 20, a philosophy major at the University of Nevada at Reno, involved with the Young Democrats club, said that the Republican convention was the best recruiting device the organization has had thus far. "Right after that, we had over 100 people show up for our meeting," he said. His table was well-trafficked -- far busier than the Republicans' club -- with students picking up bumper stickers and buying $1 buttons.
The UNR College Republicans were seated across from the College Libertarians and a willow tree away from the Young Democrats. Students stopped by often and picked up Bush-Cheney bumper stickers, or asked for buttons, though far fewer signed a form to join the club. But Kriston Whiteside, 22, a senior political science major who was presiding over the club table, said they were having no trouble recruiting new members.
"We've been chartered for just one week as an official organization," she said, "And we've had about 200 people sign up."
One new recruit, John McDougal, 18, a freshman, grabbed a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker. "I'm a Republican, and I think it's cool that we're getting more students involved," he said.
More than once, though, when Lee, the GOP operative, pitched the party, students walking by answered with "No way!" or "You gotta be kidding!"
He said that did little to deter him. "I haven't felt we're outnumbered," Lee said. "If anything, I feel we're a silent majority. I think at least half of the students are on our side."
Whiteside was not so sure. "This campus is very liberal," she said. "But I think it's important for College Republicans to stand up for what they believe."
A table away, students recruiting members for the Feminist Majority were saying much the same thing. "This campus is fairly conservative," said Lindsay Gray, 22, a senior. "But this election is mobilizing young people in incredible ways."