Politics returns to campuses

Both campaigns, preparing for a tight race, invest heavily in student turnout.

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.

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.

But there's some difficult news for Kerry in the findings as well. His support is extremely soft. In fact, 37 percent of those polled didn't know enough about him to form an opinion. That, says Eric Hoplin, a recent college graduate and national chairman of the College Republicans, is a clear indication "that this is a group that's in flux at the moment.

"By paying attention to them, not only is George Bush going to be able to win this demographic, ... he'll also win this election," says Mr. Hoplin on a cellphone from the road, where's he's spent the last month traveling from Pennsylvania to Minnesota to Ohio organizing and training students.

Six months ago, that might have seemed easier. The IOP poll then showed that more college students were identifying themselves as Republicans (31 percent) than Democrats (27 percent) - a surprising shift from the past. But the current poll found they've switched back, now more are now identifying themselves as Democrats (32 percent) than Republicans (24 percent). But most, 41 percent, call themselves as independents.

That's the group still up for grabs. Students like Greg Bugaj, an 18-year old Harvard freshman. As he sits at the Greenhouse Cafe, he says his views are more aligned with Kerry, but he'll probably vote for Bush. "I would support both abortion rights and gay marriage," he says. "But I see defense as the main issue."

Aside from gay marriage, an issue on which many young voters differ with Bush, there's another factor in the shift away from the president: Young people often reflect the mood of the country as a whole. During the Roosevelt administrations they were staunchly Democratic, but the time Eisenhower came around, more were identifying with the GOP.

"These young people are coming of political age when Bush is in some sense at his nadir in terms of his ratings," says Donald Green, an analyst at Yale University. "There is this sense of uneasiness ... about foreign affairs and the economy."

Elaine Jardin is another undecided independent. She's a freshman at University of Kansas who was out in the Midwestern spring air urging people to vote in the student senate elections. Her top concern before she makes her final decision is healthcare.

"I haven't always agreed with decisions made by the current administration," she says, and then adds a note of uncertainty about Kerry: "Promises are easy to make."

That pronounced sense of distrust is another quality that marks this generation of young people. They want to know that politicians will do what they say, and what they say is true. Combine that with the fact that the war in Iraq is their top concern, and researchers say it helps explain Bush's new trouble on campus.

So in addition to the campaigns raising campus issues from school loans to the war, students will be hearing plenty of the old time politics: Bush accusing Kerry of flip-flopping and Kerry accusing Bush of misleading the public. In the past, such negativity may have alienated many young voters. But this year, at least, Alissa Stollwerk is convinced that won't happen. "We need to do everything that we can to turn out every vote that we can," she says, heading into her dorm. "And we will."

Leita Walker in Kansas and Elizabeth Armstrong in Boston contributed to this report.

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