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Candidates Court 'Twentysomethings'

Presidential hopefuls are using Internet, MTV in concerted effort to reach young US voters

By Christina NifongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1996


THEY'VE been characterized as losers, slackers, apathetic, and lost. But so-called generation Xers are being courted by presidential candidates of both parties more ardently than at any time in the last quarter century.

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Though young people historically turn out at the ballot box in smaller numbers than do other voters, they showed up in record numbers in 1992. Some political analysts say the 10 million 18- to 30-year olds who voted in the last presidential election were the crucial swing vote that sent Bill Clinton to the White House and George Bush back to Texas - and they could be important in a close race again this year.

With the lessons of 1992 fresh in their memories, candidates are reaching out to this segment of the population earlier, more systematically, and via nontraditional outlets where the MTV generation tunes in.

''There is now a conscious decision that young people will be a part of the winning strategy,'' says Jamie Daves, youth director for Clinton-Gore '92 and field coordinator for the Democratic Leadership Council, a Clinton-backed policy group that represents the party's moderate wing.

But youth organizers say it will take more than electronic gestures from candidates to propel twentysomethings to the polls this year. In 1996, they say, the youth vote will tip toward the candidate who substantively addresses the issues dear to this group: financial aid, employment opportunities, crime, and the environment.

''I think the key way to get young people involved is to talk about the things that matter to them,'' says Tabitha Soren, an MTV News host and the correspondent who blazed the hip channel's election-coverage trail in 1992. ''Young people are political people, but they don't necessarily connect the issues that they care about with the electoral process.''

A poll conducted early last month by New-York based Global Strategy Group Inc. showed crime and drugs at the top of the list of young people's concerns: 17 percent cite that as the most important issue facing America today. The federal budget followed with 10 percent; jobs and unemployment were the top concern for 8 percent of respondents.

Surveys show that two-thirds of the nation's 37.5 million 18- to 30-year-olds do not affiliate themselves with either political party - a sign that America's next generation of leaders is disillusioned with what Democrats and Republicans are offering. When they voted in record-breaking numbers in '92, twentysomethings were 10 percent of the electorate.

At the same time, Youth Vote '96, a bipartisan coalition of 18 groups, is lobbying candidates to reach out to young voters and making it easier for candidates to shower attention on this demographic group.

President Clinton, for instance, brought together a group of powerful twentysomethings at the White House last week to ask what messages will ring most true to young people and what are the best means for distributing those messages. On his campaign stops this year, he has made a concerted effort to include young people.

Republican Sen. Bob Dole met students on their own turf last month when he dropped by Dartmouth College's Alpha Delta fraternity house in Hanover, N.H. After his stump speech, he hopped in the souped-up, MTV ''Choose or Lose'' bus for an extensive interview with Ms. Soren.