To be young and voting

It looks as if the youth vote is set to increase again – a welcome sign of civic health.

The excitement started to bubble up a couple of election cycles ago. In 2004, the youth vote spiked dramatically upward. In 2006, it increased again. All signs point to another rise in November. It looks as if America has itself a healthy civic trend going on.

It's tough motivating young Americans to exercise their ballot-box rights. Today's young people reach out to their communities by volunteering and fundraising for charities at rates similar to their older cohorts. But historically, young people lag way behind as voters. With one other big exception (1992), the general trend of the youth vote has been down or flat since 1972, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

Harvard University's Institute of Politics goes so far as to call the increased participation "the civic reawakening of a new generation."

The youth vote (18-to-29-year-olds) quadrupled in this year's Tennessee primary. It approximately tripled in primary and caucus contests in Iowa, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, according to the institute's latest survey, taken in March.

What's partly switched them on, explains the Harvard survey, are the past two razor-thin national elections, a new sense of the import of politics since 9/11, weighty issues, and Internet campaigning.

In the competition between Democratic hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, age is the single most determining predictor of voter preference (other than whether one is African-American or not). Seventy percent of young voters back Mr. Obama and his message of change; 30 percent are for Mrs. Clinton and her emphasis on experience.

Depending on their participation, young people could shift the political balance in the US. Today's "Millennials" are a big group – second only to the Baby Boomers. They came of age during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and lean heavily Democratic, according to an April study by the Pew Research Center. That contrasts with "Generation X," which matured in the Reagan years and helped fuel the Republican surge of the mid-1990s.

The 58 percent of Millennials who identify themselves as Democrat or leaning Democrat versus the 33 percent who identify as Republican or leaning GOP represents the largest spread since 1992, when young voters were almost equally divided in their political leanings.

The Millennials, according to another Pew study, have a distinct background. Compared with other age groups, fewer grew up in two-parent households, and many more had a mother who worked full time. They are more ethnically diverse, more secular, and more technologically adept. Their differences show up especially in social issues. They are far more likely to accept gay marriage – an election wedge issue – than older Americans, and show greater support for a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants.

But they don't differ much from older voters on "hard" issues. The economy and Iraq are their top two concerns, according to the Harvard study – while the environment was ranked No. 1 by only 5 percent of the study's young people.

How Millennials will change the American political scene is hard to predict. But it's obvious this next generation is on the march.

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