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For election 08, youth voter turnout swells

Their numbers surged in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Will the trend continue?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2008

Courting millennials: Barack Obama at the College of Charleston in South Carolina during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images

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New York

If politically active 20-somethings have their way, 2008 is going to be their year.

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The "Millennials," as sociologists have dubbed them, have already shaken up the presidential primary races with their surprisingly large turnouts in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary at 13 percent and 43 percent respectively.

Political analysts are watching to see whether that increase in youth turnout holds when the politicking shifts from the retail-style handshaking in smaller states to the wholesale media buys and tarmac touchdowns in larger ones on Super Tuesday.

That's Feb. 5, when more than 20 states will hold primaries. If more young people turn out then, it could be the cementing of a trend started in 2000 when youth turnout started ticking upward. If you believe young people themselves, it is the beginning of a new brand of less cynical political engagement in the future.

"Super Tuesday puts the trend of higher youth involvement to the test," says Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "It forces us to explain the high voter turn out as either in terms of voter mobilization [which is easier in small states] or because of enthusiasm inspired by the candidates."

Talk to young people, and they have another reason as well: optimism. While "Gen-Xers" are known for their cynical alienation, these Millennials are socially active, engaged in volunteerism and determined to make the world a better place.

"Something is going on, that era of irony is finally playing itself out," says Marc Morgenstern, executive director of Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan youth voter mobilization organization in Los Angeles. "Cynicism and irony can only go so far. Eventually the pendulum has to swing the other way and it becomes cool again to care about things."

You can hear that in the voices of the young people who go to campaign events. In Las Vegas at a rally headlined by former President Clinton for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, on Monday, Jalon Sisson said politics is personal for him.

"It's my future," said the young Las Vegas resident. "What I really don't understand is why there aren't more young people here because ... we are the ones who are going to have to live with the problems of the future."

His friend Jarrell Roberts echoed another sentiment heard from many young people. It's a sense that the country hasn't been led well in their political lifetime, and they'd like to change that. "We just know from facts that President Bill Clinton was a way better president than President Bush," he says.

At an event for Barack Obama in Pahrump, Nev., another theme emerged: a desire among the young for the unvarnished truth.

"Even if [there comes a time when] we won't like to hear what he says, he'll still tell you the truth," says Claire Chase.