Features

Young and restless

"Young and restless" Continued...

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

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."

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