New York — At first glance, 18-to-24-year-olds are not a likely target for voter registration efforts. They have the worst voter participation rate. And although they are often willing to donate volunteer time to candidates, they are not likely to be large campaign contributors.
They represent only 17 percent of the voting-age population.
But the battle for the hearts and minds of potential young voters is on between the Democratic and Republican parties. Reported heavy registration of young people in the GOP, a reversal of a long-standing pattern, is giving the Republicans new hope of overcoming or at least shrinking the Democrats' numerical advantage.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the Republican National Committee, says one of the ''most significant political occurrences in 1984'' is not just the ''overwhelming'' support this age group is giving the Reagan-Bush ticket, but that first-time registrants are going Republican nearly 2-to-1.
''I think this has tremendous significance for years ahead,'' Mr. Fahrenkopf said in a telephone interview.
Bonnie Wetterer, staff director of Young Democrats of America, admits Republicans are making gains among this age group. But she sees it as a short-term effect.
''Obviously we are working to combat the image that students are more conservative than liberal,'' Ms. Wetterer says. She predicts that as the campaign continues and the issues ''begin to hit home,'' young adults will vote for Democratic candidates.
Rick Iritano, a 23-year-old from Queens, is registering to vote for the first time this year. He plans to sign up as a Republican.
''From what I've seen and read, they are more aggressive on the issues,'' says Mr. Iritano, who works in Manhattan. ''They are the party of freedom. Democrats are weak on a lot of points. There is lots of talk, but very little action.''
Johnny Rivera, a 22-year-old college student from East Harlem, registered to vote as soon as he turned 18. He says he had no choice but to register as a Democrat.
''Democrats are for programs that would help people in my community be able to do something with their lives,'' says Mr. Rivera. He lists high unemployment, physical deterioration of buildings and streets, and a deterioration of people's hope as problems that East Harlem, a mostly Hispanic and black community, faces. He says he feels that many Republicans think people are unemployed and on welfare ''because they want to be.''
Thomas Cavanagh, senior research assistant at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, says that together, the 18-to-24- and 25-to-35-year-old groups represent a significant block of votes, and ''the battle over this group is very important.'' It will be a dominant political force in the future, and whichever party wins its loyalty gains substantial influence, Mr. Cavanagh says.
In the current voter registration drives being run by both major parties and many nonpartisan groups, there have been gains among young voters. Among people who have registered for the first time in 1983 or 1984, 74 percent of the blacks are between 18 and 29, and 84 percent of the whites are in that age group, according to a Gallup survey done for the Joint Center for Political Studies.
But though minorities are registering heavily Democratic, the larger number of young whites registering Republican give the GOP an edge among this age group. These people see Ronald Reagan as a strong, dynamic leader, says Fahrenkopf.
''The No. 1 issue among 18- to 25-year-olds is the economy and jobs,'' he says. Many of these new registrants have only known two presidents - Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - and they often link Mr. Carter with high inflation.
Other sources dispute that a realignment is taking place among young voters.
''The economy is the driving force behind any realignment,'' says Cavanagh. ''What has happened is that whites feel that the economy has turned a corner, and the recovery will last a long time. They feel that Reagan is responsible.''
But any change in the economy could stifle support for the GOP, he adds, since many young Republicans are still more socially liberal than older party members.
Indeed, people like Rick Iritano confirm that young adults are not always ready to follow party lines. Although Iritano will register as a Republican, he says he plans to ask lots of questions, and he is not altogether pleased with Mr. Reagan.
''He's done a good job in relation to other presidents,'' says Iritano. But he says he does not think the economic recovery is as good as the President is claiming. And he would like to see better housing and medical programs for the elderly.
What about the poor voting rate among young adults? Statistics show that registration is the main hurdle for voter participation. Once registered, people are likely to vote. Census Bureau statistics show that turnout among persons who were registered declined slightly, from 91 percent in 1968 to 89 percent in 1976 and 1980.