YOU'VE HEARD A LOT RECENTLY ABOUT THE tightening presidential race for 2004. The huge lead George W. Bush had just three or four months ago, according to some usually reliable polls, has vanished. With almost 13 months still separating us from the next election, of course, all such speculation is pretty squishy; but nobody likes to see a big advantage melt away.
What you may not have heard much about is a potent weapon increasingly available to conservative political candidates. That weapon, to be sure, is by no means fully developed. It's nowhere nearly as potent now as it's likely to be in 20 years. But if you were a liberal running for office sometime soon, you'd take no comfort from the fact that this is still a new and unpolished tool.
I'm referring to the homeschool movement. But I'm not talking in terms of the broad, generic, educational, and philosophical influence the movement is likely to exert on society. That too is real, and almost certainly beneficial.
But I focus here instead on the fact that homeschooling families tend to be politically active by margins that should scare the daylights out of anyone whom those homeschoolers might want to take on.
For example, just 29 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds voted in national and state elections over the last five years. But among former homeschoolers who are now in that age bracket, a whopping 74 percent went to the polls. In the next age bracket up (25- to 29-year-olds) the margin is even bigger: In the population at large, 40 percent voted, but among folks with homeschooling backgrounds, 93 percent went to the polls.
While those are impressive-even staggering-differences, a tough-minded critic might still come back with a scornful "So what?" After all, best estimates are that there are only 2 million homeschoolers in the United States right now-or maybe as many as 2.5 million or at most 3 million. What are they among the 80 million to 100 million who go to the polls in a typical national election? Besides, homeschooling is still a relatively young phenomenon, which means that only a relative few of its products are out there in the political milieu.
But anyone who argues that way is setting himself up for a fall. For it's not just on the voting front that homeschoolers will affect the political process for years to come. They carry two other potent weapons.
First, former homeschoolers are at least two or three times as likely as others to be financial contributors to political candidates, parties, and causes.
Much more important, however, is that homeschoolers are two to 10 times as likely as the population at large to be on-the-ground workers for political candidates, parties, and causes.
"Those are astonishing numbers," says Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "Anyone with any political savvy can see that something is happening with homeschooled children to turn them into the greatest single source for political activism our nation has seen in a long time."
Mr. Farris points out that this is not just about some future potential, but already-organized reality. In Missouri last year, he says, a team of 90 students (including 40 from Patrick Henry College, where Mr. Farris is president) helped secure the narrow victory of Republican Jim Talent for the U.S. Senate. The top party official in Missouri commented: "The Student Project in southwest Missouri allowed us to win.... Our voter turnout increased by at least 15 percent in the area where the students were working."
Similarly, in New Mexico, a team of 60 students helped conservative Steve Pearce rack up a 12 percent victory margin in a House district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 50,000 voters and where the race had been called a dead heat just 10 days earlier.
All that means, of course, that homeschoolers' extraordinary activism eclipses their relatively small numbers. And activism is almost always what makes a difference in political contests.
Might homeschoolers come to be for conservative Republicans what the labor movement has traditionally been for Democrats? That is the goal of HSLDA and its new federal political action committee called Generation Joshua. Mr. Farris hopes the strategy will help "train tomorrow's political leaders by enabling them to participate in electing today's leaders." The growing group (anchored by homeschoolers, but by no means limited to those with homeschooling backgrounds) is especially targeting U.S. Senate races next year in Florida, South Dakota, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Heading the new group is Ned Ryun, graduate of the University of Kansas and son of Kansas Congressman (and former track star) Jim Ryun. He doesn't remind you much of a union boss. But the tools quietly at his disposal may prove him every bit as politically potent.