DURHAM, N.C.- In the well-appointed lobby of the Sheraton Imperial Hotel, a fair-skinned bride in a white satin gown sheepishly smiles for photos in the soft light near a corner window.
A few feet away, a more informal photo shoot unfolds: A boisterous group of young women in pinstripe suits and high-heel shoes crowds around James Carville-the fiery Democratic consultant known as the "Ragin' Cajun."
Carville's fans beam almost as brightly as the bride across the room as the television personality signs autographs and bustles through a revolving door to his waiting limousine. Down the hall, the ballroom where Carville just spoke is still full. Several hundred young people-mostly between the ages of 18 and 35-have packed it for the state convention of the Young Democrats of North Carolina.
It's standing room only by midday, and less than a month away from the state's May 6 primary. With a protracted Democratic contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, North Carolina's triple-digit-delegate primary could affect the outcome of a presidential nomination for the first time since 1976.
That's not lost on the convention's high-energy crowd or the local politicians who know something else about this election cycle: Voter registration for ages 18-39 nationwide is at an all-time high, and the age group makes up as much as 25 percent of the electorate.
And though more young voters are voting Democratic than Republican during the primary season, neither party has clinched the key bloc ahead of this fall's general election. That makes generating enthusiasm among young voters a high priority on each party's growing to-do list.
Back at the Young Democrats convention, North Carolina congressman Brad Miller taps into that enthusiasm. "This is the year we can do more than elect a candidate," he says to rowdy cheers. "We can start a movement." The crowd roars again when North Carolina House Speaker Jim Hackney declares: "I'm convinced we are embarking on a new blue era."
Two weeks later, the scene at the state convention for the Young Republicans of North Carolina in nearby Greensboro is conspicuously less energetic. On a rainy afternoon in mid-April, about 75 people attend a luncheon featuring local candidates. Five tables with full place settings remain empty, and the low-key crowd is subdued as local candidates speak.
When one candidate mentions the national elections and asks, "Do you want a President Barack Obama?" the crowd answers with a low, muffled, "No."
North Carolina Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry tries to liven up the young crowd by announcing from the podium: "Wake up, ya'll!" Holding up a local newspaper, Berry points out a headline she says should scare the crowd: "Voter registration surges." Peeking out from behind the paper, Berry adds: "And it ain't us, folks!" The story in the Greensboro newspaper notes that Republican voter registration in the state has doubled since 2004, but Democratic registration has tripled.
Berry tells the crowd: "Some people think Republicans are suffering from a new disease: electile dysfunction." She adds: "I hope it's not true."
Six months before a general election is too early to predict a political tsunami for either party, and recent polls show presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain in a dead heat when matched against Clinton or Obama.
Still, statistics show more young people are voting, and that more young voters are voting Democratic: In at least seven states this year, the young voting rate tripled over the primary season in 2004. In the 14 primaries on Super Tuesday in February, more than twice as many voters ages 18-29 voted in Democratic primaries as in Republican contests, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a nonpartisan research center at the University of Maryland.
Emily Kirby, a senior research associate at CIRCLE, says that the surge in young voters is a continuation of a trend that began in 2004: Between 1972 and 2000, young voter turnout declined by 16 percent. During the 2004 presidential elections, the turnout surged by 11 percent, and it continued to rise during the 2006 mid-term elections.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won the youth vote by 9 percent in 2004. In the 2006 mid-term elections, young voters supported Democrats over Republicans by more than 20 percentage points.
Kirby told WORLD that more young people began voting partly because more candidates asked them to vote: "In 2004 there was an unprecedented amount of time and money spent by both parties and nonpartisan groups to reach young voters." Since young voters haven't always decided which party to support, candidates see them as "an untapped source," says Kirby.
In the Democratic race this year, young voters have favored Obama: The Illinois senator has won the youth vote in the Democratic primaries in all but three states. In several states Obama has outpaced Clinton among young voters by as many as 50 points. But national polls show the overall race for young voters is still close: In a recent Rasmussen poll, Obama led McCain 48 percent to 37 percent among voters ages 18-29. Clinton led McCain among young voters by just three points.
That means the youth vote is still up for grabs, and the formula for reaching young voters is simple, says Kirby: Talk about the issues that matter to them, and make the approach personal. "I think it's really a matter of asking," she says.
All three presidential candidates are asking: In North Carolina, the Obama campaign has assigned an organizer to every college campus in the state. That strategy proved successful in other primary states. The campaign has also recruited "springterns"-college students willing to work in key primary states during their spring break. In an outdoor rally at Pennsylvania State University in late March, Obama drew more than 20,000 people.
The Clinton campaign has also reached out to college students on nearly 300 campuses across the country through Student Hillblazers, a networking and volunteer program for Clinton supporters. Clinton also relies heavily on her 28-year-old daughter, Chelsea Clinton, to connect with young voters.
The younger Clinton has visited more than 90 college campuses during the primary season, and she re-arranged her schedule to address the Young Democrats in North Carolina in March: The finance analyst who lives in Manhattan spent more than an hour taking questions from the audience and answering policy questions in articulate, painstaking detail.
McCain had a far shorter primary campaign, but he spent time on college campuses last fall and early this year. The 71-year-old senator connects well with young audiences with his self-deprecating jokes and witty humor. During a stop at the College of Charleston late last year, McCain also told students he would communicate with younger citizens by participating in online forums as president.
In a recent guest editorial in The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania, McCain wrote that he also wants to connect with socially and politically active young voters by asking them to serve their country: "Young men and women want a leader who will recognize the commitment to service that exists among their generation, a leader who will ask something of them."
Two days later, the student newspaper endorsed McCain and Clinton for their parties' nominations. The editorial board cited McCain's foreign policy experience and his early support of the troop surge in Iraq. The editors also liked McCain's positions on issues that make him popular with independent voters, such as federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and an aggressive approach to climate change.
The students passed on Obama because they felt unsure that his rhetoric and campaign slogan-"Yes, We Can"-were based on solid policies: "While Obama's charisma far outshines that of Sen. Hillary Clinton, her public service, political experience and tenacity tell us not only 'Yes we can,' but also 'How we can.'"
At the North Carolina Young Democrats convention, 19-year-old Michael Shay says that's why he's voting for Clinton. The president of the Young Democrats chapter at North Carolina State University, Shay says his group is "overwhelmingly for Obama." He thinks college students with less life experience are drawn to Obama's idealism. "Obama's speeches are a lot more inspirational," says Shay. "But Clinton's are more about real life."
Across the room, Jasmine Bell, a sophomore at North Carolina Central University, has latched onto Obama's message about change. "He motivates me and inspires me," she says. "I think he'll change things." When asked if she's clear on Obama's policy proposals, Bell replies: "Kinda, sort of."
At the nearby Young Republicans convention, 27-year-old Darren Eustance says Republicans have a different problem. "We all know what Democrats stand for," he says. "But what do Republicans stand for except the war on terror?"
Eustance is a fiscal conservative frustrated with the bloated deficit and earmark spending advanced by some Republican leaders, and he says other Republicans are disillusioned as well. "It would be very hard for someone like me to say to an undecided voter, 'If you vote Republican, you'll get this and this,'" he says. "That's a dichotomy in the party that has to be fixed."
Still, Eustance isn't worried about the November elections, and he thinks McCain will win over younger voters. "Eventually the Democrats have to decide on a nominee," he says. "And then we'll have a stark choice between McCain, who we disagree with 10 percent of the time, and a Democrat who we disagree with all the time."
CIRCLE's Kirby says the closer the presidential race remains, the more young voters will likely turn out. And she says it's impossible to predict which way the pendulum will swing: "There's a lot of time between now and November. A day in Washington can be like a lifetime."