Tapping the youth vote.
Candidates who discount youth issues because they believe young people don't care about voting may be setting the scene for their own future political comeuppance, say members of the Student Voter Coalition, which has registered 5,000 students at the University of Oregon since September.
"Cynicism doesn't win elections. Growing an informed, active electorate wins elections," said Anna Galland, a 27-year-old organizer with the coalition. Look back at the 2004 general election, and you'll see that "students did and do vote," Galland said.
Paying attention to the concerns of students and young working people ages 18 to 29, sometimes called "Generation Y," will be increasingly important in future years, agrees Christopher Arterton, dean of the George Washington Graduate School of Political Management, which houses Young Voter Strategies.
`Generation Y is large, increasingly active, and up for grabs politically,' Arterton said. `Parties should take note - in today's evenly divided electorate, whoever wins over young voters will win close elections in the short run and likely be the party in power in the long run.'
But so far, youth vote organizers say they're unimpressed by the amount of attention that politicians are giving to their top issues: the cost of college, the burden of educational debt, low-wage jobs and the Iraq war.
The reason is simple, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury said.
Early in the campaign season, candidates take surveys to identify issues important to people in their districts, then pare the lists down based on the priorities of "likely" voters. The second list forms the basis of their message, Bradbury said.
"On the issues that matter to the larger public, things like college tuition might be high," he said. "But when you look at likely voters, college tuition falls to the bottom of the list, because who are the likely voters? In a high-turnout election, the median age of voters was 50, and in a low-turnout election it's 60."
Organizers believe they're energizing the young electorate, but youths are not yet showing up as likely voters in candidate polls, Bradbury said. "Thus far, you ignore them and there's not been any peril because they don't vote."
But the peril is growing, because demographic patterns show that Generation Y will make up a quarter of the country's population by 2016, says Kathleen Barr, spokeswoman for Young Voter Strategies.
Smart parties and candidates should be developing brand loyalty with young voters, Barr said. "Voting is a habit, but so is partisanship. Who ever reaches out to them now is definitely smart."
This election, Generation Y is trending strongly toward the Democrats, polls by Young Voter Strategies indicate. In one, 65 percent of 18- to 29 year olds rate the Democratic Party favorably, while 25 percent rate it unfavorably.
That had one Democratic analyst licking his chops. They could be a "permanently aligning cohort," he wrote.
But it might simply reflect today's political climate, Barr said. Research from Harvard University has indicated that Generation Y loosely falls one-third each Democrat, Republican and independent.
University of Oregon student Jessica Crowell, for instance, comes from a deeply conservative family. She said her grandfather was a member of the Reagan administration.
Crowell favors fiscally conservative government, but leans toward socially liberal public policies. Coming to the UO "has brought me closer to the middle a little bit," she said, "(Still) I usually line up more with Republicans."
UO accounting student Chris Hermann tends to lean Democratic on "humanity type issues." Even so, "I'm also in the business school here so I get a lot of that kind of influence here, too," Hermann said.
Barr said wise politicians will bone up on issues that matter to young people.
"They're not some odd, separate part of the electorate. They're just younger, older voters," she said.
- Diane Dietz