To many longtime voters, the fall election will again be about national security and the economy. But to college students like Andrew Sylvia, it's about the environment, too. And if he gets his wish, it will push his Generation-Y buddies out of their dorm rooms and to the polls.
Already, one of the most intense efforts ever in the United States is under way to turn out the 18- to 24-year-old vote. At least 100 organizations of various stripes are targeting young people, observers say. In a close contest, the environment may prove the sleeper issue that can make the difference, they say.
But college campuses pose a huge challenge for organizers. With students more interested in electives than elections, the youth vote traditionally has proved more pipsqueak than powerhouse. That is why green groups are focusing their efforts on campuses in swing states.
"We're at full throttle now, and the amount of interest we're seeing is comparable to the best we've ever seen," says Joshua Feldmark, executive director of the Center for Environmental Citizenship in Washington, D.C. "We're working on clean-energy programs on about 100 campuses[in key battleground states]. Once we can engage these folks on consumer activism, they quickly engage and understand their role in the political process."
By election day, he expects his organization to have contacted 350,000 students with a resulting 5 percent jump in 18- to 24-year-old turnout in certain precincts.
The math is compelling. In New Hampshire, for example, where Mr. Sylvia hopes to rally his fellow Keene State University students, President Bush won in 2000 by fewer than 9,000 votes. If even a third of the 23,000 students at the state's three big universities turned out this year, it could make a big difference. In Florida, the margin was even smaller - fewer than 1,000 votes or about the capacity of three big lecture halls.
The youth vote represents a huge untapped reservoir. In 2000, there were about 30 million citizens 18 to 25 years old, about 16 percent of the total voting population. But in the last presidential election only 37 percent of that age group voted, compared with 64 percent of those over 25 years old, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reports.
Both parties - seeking an edge in a tight race - appear to be taking college-age voters seriously. The Bush-Cheney campaign put youth teams in place months earlier than it did in 2000. For environmental groups, whether independent or affiliated with a party, the trick is to craft the right message.
"These young adults are not interested in hearing about an issue that doesn't have a positive solution," says Mr. Feldmark. "It needs to be a positive solution - like switching from dirty to clean energy."
At Keene State, for example, a campus rock concert flopped as a voter-registration tool. So Sylvia plans to rally students with a program encouraging the campus to use electricity from renewable sources, like wind power.
During the Democratic primaries, about 50 college students in Iowa and New Hampshire dressed up like astronauts to promote the new "Apollo Alliance" project - a clean energy technology proposal put forward by the Sierra Club, the United Auto Workers, and the CEC.
Younger voters, especially Generation Y (born between 1975 and 1995), seem likely to connect on the environment, some pollsters say. They hold green views more strongly than their Generation X (1964-75) counterparts and are more likely to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to Greenberg, Quinland, Rosner Research, which polls for the Democratic Party.
Protecting the environment ranks above encouraging economic growth for 58 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds and 62 percent were against drilling in the Arctic - easily the highest of any age group. Two-thirds of that group ranked environmental issues as a high (48 percent) or their highest priority (18 percent).
To others, however, using environment to get youths to the polls seems a long shot.
Environment issues rank high - but not at the very top of student concerns, some polls show. Tuition hikes, job prospects, terrorism, and the war on Iraq dominate the youth voters' list just as they do older voters. In one recent poll, the environment earned a 7.3 out of 10 rank, but ranked 15th in a recent poll of what students cared about, says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland.
"A lot of these kids are green - but there's not a depth of understanding there," he says. "For many of them, this just means they personally don't leave garbage on the ground."
Of course, public opinion can shift rapidly.
"What no one knows is whether there will be a trigger mechanism that spikes people's awareness of environment," says Cary Silvers, vice president of consumer trends for NOP World, a research company that conducts an annual Roper Green Gauge Report, which polls youth. "People can turn on a dime. These attitudes can shoot much, much higher, similar to terrorism, which went from nowhere to the nation's No. 1 concern."
Campaigning for the environment, irrespective of party, is Joshua Galanter, a junior majoring in political science, who plops down at a table in the middle of the University of Florida at Gainesville campus several times a week to register students to vote. He also asks them to fill out a short survey of their top three political interests. Invariably environment is on that short list, often right behind tuition and the war in Iraq, he says.
"For kids on this campus, environment is almost always one of their top issues," he says. "College students this time could be a force to be reckoned with."