GOP still falls short of mark in attracting young supporters

A "Reagan Youth Delegation," some 2000 strong, added the tone of a pep rally to the boisterous welcome ceremony given their candidate at his hotel campaign headquarters here.

Earlier, at the convention arena several blocks away, a speaker told a mostly inattentive audience, "Twenty percent of college students vote. Nine million sit around."

In the tradition of political conventions, the Republicans here have orchestrated plenty of youthful spirit for apparent nominee Ronald Reagan. But behind the placards, banners, and buttons, the Gran Old Party is enlisting precious-few new, young faces into its ranks.

The same is true of the Democratic Party. America's youth, though well-educated, is voting less than earlier generations, and is less interested in attaching to political parties.

This is not just a trend among very young adults in their late teens and early 20s. It includes those in their 30s as well, point out demographers and social scientists.

Political participation has always been highest in the United States among those aged 50 to 60. But profound demographic changes in American society give added importance to the behaviour of young adults in the 1980s.

This November, the "baby boom" generation of the 1950s will have more potential power at the polls than any under-30 age group has ever had in the United States. They will represent almost one-third of the voting-age population.

"There is an awful lot of fertile ground out there, and its importance goes well beyond November," notes Lance Tarrance of V. Lance Tarrance and Associates, a Houston polling and research firm.

Yet, if past presidential elections are any indication, young voters will mostly avoid the polls this year. About half of those elegible to vote in the 25-to-29 bracket cast ballots in 1976.

David B. Hill, author of "Trends in american Electoral Behavious" and a professor of political science at Texas A & M University, says he is most concerned over the fact that even as the baby boom generation now moves into its 30s it is not showing the sharp increase in voter participation typical of past generations.

"Participation is a habit, and unless they show more signs of getting involved the political parties could be in real trouble over the next decade," he said.

The ranks of young Republican activists have been growing, although by a small amount compared to the tremendous increase in the population of young adults. The College Republican National Committee, considered the moderate Republican organization for youth, has expanded its membership 20 percent in the past two years.

Rick Davis, national field director of the group, says that more encouraging than the overall growth in numbers is the increase of women and students from moderate- and lower-income families.

Whereas the College Republican National Committee's membership once was concentrated in expensive, private colleges, Mr. Davis says new chapters have sprung up in the past two years at community colleges and rural schools in the South.

Still, the controversial positions taken by Republicans here in opposing the Equal rights Amendment and favoring a constitutional ban on abortions could sweep away some Reagan support from young voters.

Betty I. Yurchuck, co-chairman of the Young Republican National Federation, which represets about 500,000 Republicans aged 18 to 40, disagrees with the abortion stand and says the issue is "too personal to be in the party platform."

"Abortion is one of the few burning issues on campuses, and this is going to really hurt us," admits Mr. Davis. He believes independent candidate John Anderson will gain a significant number of college votes due to the Republican Party position on abortion.

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