Politics returns to campuses
Both campaigns, preparing for a tight race, invest heavily in student turnout.
NEW HAVEN, CONN.
Alissa Stollwerk is "storming the dorms" at Yale. She's knocking on doors within the staid Gothic courtyards, searching through common rooms, and asking friends of friends how to find the specific students on her carefully researched list.Skip to next paragraph
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Each one is a potential voter from a swing state. And as far as Ms. Stollwerk is concerned, each one has the potential to elect the next president of the United States.
"We learned in 2000 that no matter how cynical you want to be, that every vote will count in this election," says Ms. Stollwerk, the secretary of the Yale College Democrats. "Florida was decided by a few hundred votes. There are more than 100 students at Yale from Ohio. You do the turnout, you can make the difference."
Suddenly, young people matter. More than at any time in recent history, the MTV crowd is capturing the attention of both major parties in a presidential election year. Traditionally, they've been a great source of free labor, foot soldiers willing to stuff envelopes and knock on doors. But few campaigns have spent significant resources on the young, in part because 18- to 24-year-olds have proved unreliable voters, turning out in much lower numbers than their older siblings, to say nothing of their parents and grandparents.
But this year, a combination of factors have converged to put Generation Y on a more equal footing with the Social Security set. First, there's the whole notion of the "50/50" nation. With the country deeply divided, and all but a small percentage already decided, young people have emerged as one of the few large demographics with votes still up for grabs. Then there's the shift from televised persuasion toward more grass-roots mobilization. Studies have long shown that the traditional nasty ads and robo-calls have little impact on students' voting patterns. But grab one by the arm, as Ms. Stollwerk plans to do, sit down and talk to them, and they're far more likely to vote.
Finally, there's some precedent: Youth turnout during the Democratic primary surprised many experts - call it the Generation Dean effect. Young voters' turnout quadrupled in Iowa and was up more than 50 percent in New Hampshire. A newly released survey by Harvard University found that 62 percent of college students say they will "definitely" vote in November.
"If the numbers of young people who say they're going to vote, actually do, we'll see a substantial increase in the youth turnout," says Dan Glickman, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "So it's both an opportunity and a warning."
For President Bush, the warning is to pay extra attention. The survey released last week found that his support on college campuses, which six months ago was higher than in the population as a whole, has eroded. Democratic challenger John Kerry now beats him by 10 points.
Zeinab Othman, a senior at the University of Kansas, points to the weak job market, soaring gas prices, and concern over the war on terror to explain her support for Kerry. And she's pleased his campaign, which just came off a week-long college tour, is paying attention to her generation.
"Hopefully this year we're going to make a difference," she says.