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Obama greets students at East Carolina University.

Young and restless

Politics | A surge in political interest among youthful voters helps Democrats

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

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.

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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.

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