Yale University junior Zach Marks was sitting in a college dining hall shaking his head at his friend.
The two students had started out discussing how each of their preferred candidates could beat whomever the Republicans nominated. But within minutes, their discussion had turned into a debate.
Hillary Clinton's health care plan is much better than Barack Obama's, Marks' friend insisted: Obama's ideas have been tried and failed, he said.
Marks rolled his eyes.
"No one unites the Republican Party like Clinton," Marks, a 21-year-old Philadelphia resident, argued.
Several days later, Marks said the discussion with his friend was typical. "The dining hall is always abuzz with that sort of conversation," he said. "Folks here are pretty energized about 2008."
That energy seems to be everywhere you find young adults, and colleges and universities are the epicenters. Voter registrars in Mansfield, New Haven and Middletown, homes of the state's best known universities, say there has been an influx of young voters either registering for the first time or changing their political affiliation in time for Tuesday's Connecticut primaries.
"Dorm stormings" have taken place at campuses around the state, with activists going up and down halls, knocking on doors to get students to register.
Young adults are stepping up and signing up to get involved again in the nation's political process in a way some experts say they haven't seen since the Vietnam War. The youth vote already has been influential in the primaries and caucuses, helping push Republican candidates John McCain and Mike Huckabee and Democrats Clinton and Obama ahead in several states.
"The youth vote is absolutely critical for the primaries," said Marc Morgenstern, executive director of www.declareyourself.com, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to registering people aged 18-29.
The youth factor was "absolutely important to the outcome" in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he said, and, to a lesser extent, in Nevada. Morgenstern said that Declare Yourself alone has registered a quarter-million young people since the caucuses and primaries began in January. He said the organization believes it can double the number of young people, 1.2 million, who registered in 2004.
According to Rock the Vote, which has a mission similar to that of Declare Yourself, more young voters participated in this year's caucuses and primaries than in the last presidential election.
Figures from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland show that 43 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2008 primary in New Hampshire; in 2004, only 18 percent of people from that age group voted.
The youth vote has been on the rise since the 2000 presidential election, according to Rock the Vote. In 2000, there were 15.8 million young voters. By 2004, the number of young voters had increased to 20.1 million. For the midterm elections in 2002 and 2006, the youth vote rose from 8.9 million to 10.8 million, the first increase in that population group in 24 years.
Based on polling data, experts expect the trend to continue.
"There's a couple dozen states left to go and things could change, but every indication that we've seen is that the youth vote is increasing every single day," said John Della Volpe, polling director at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
Breaking On Through
There are a few reasons for this newfound interest, one being the online organization of several candidates who are targeting the younger electorate. Clinton, Obama, McCain and Republican candidate Mitt Romney have profiles on Facebook, an Internet socializing site mostly used by the under-30 crowd. The candidates use Facebook to share their family photos and talk about their interests, such as playing basketball, and their favorite books and television shows. They also discuss their histories, their campaign platforms and policies.
McCain's daughter, Meghan, a recent Columbia University graduate, has a site dedicated to the campaign called mccainblogette.com. In a recent post, Meghan wrote, after her father's victory in Florida, "What does it feel like to win the Florida Primary? It feels like The Doors song 'Break on Through' ..."
"[W]e are commonly overlooked when politicians are trying to communicate with voters," said Reid Vineis, president of Trinity College Republicans. "We don't receive mail, we don't get phone calls, we aren't surveyed by pollsters. But we're on the Internet, we listen to our friends and that word-of-mouth is really the best way to communicate with 18- to 22-year-olds," said the sophomore, from Columbus, Ohio.
The issues coming before the young electorate present another reason for them to get involved, said Morgenstern, of Declare Yourself. The troubled economy and rising unemployment rate strongly affect students who are getting ready to graduate. The rising cost of a higher education also scares them, Morgenstern said.
In addition, many people in that age group are concerned about the soldiers in Iraq and so the country's Middle East policy is important to them, he said. He also said the hot topic of the environment resonates with college-age voters.
Max Rothstein, a 19-year-old freshman at Wesleyan University and the state college coordinator for the group Students for Barack Obama, said there's something else involved, too. Growing up under the Bush administration has affected the psyche of people in his generation, who tend to be liberal.
"It seemed so cheap and it seemed unfair that the [U.S.] Supreme Court should decide the election. It shocked people," Rothstein said of the 2000 election in which Al Gore lost to Bush. "Having had that early on, people, at least from what I see, tend to be more acutely aware of how the quirks affect the election process."
Rothstein, a Chicago native, is helping students organize themselves throughout the state, and much of that activity has focused on getting out the vote for Obama who, he said, is most popular among college students.
"Younger people tend to be more liberal, so after being under a conservative administration in power for eight years and the Iraq War, it gives people a reason to be enraged," he said.
The Diversity Factor
There's still one more factor driving younger voters, according to Morgenstern: Young people have a sense that they can help make history with their votes.
"They can select a candidate who can break the mold, whomever that candidate may be. There's a black candidate, a female candidate, a Mormon candidate, an Evangelical candidate," he said.
"There are so many reasons in 2008 for young people to get passionate about this election."
College students at the University of Connecticut made it clear two years ago that politics were important to them. About 1,600 new voters were registered at UConn in Storrs in the state's 2nd Congressional District, where incumbent representative Rob Simmons, a Republican, and Joe Courtney were competing in a tight race.
The number of registered student voters at UConn in 2006 was 3,000, the highest the college had seen since 1992. Student groups hired limos and buses to take students to the polls, as well as having phone banks, dorm stormings and e-mails to increase the turnout. Courtney continues to visit the college that helped him unseat the incumbent by only 83 votes in the closest election in the country.
UConn is doing much of the same thing this year, with more students knocking on dorm doors and with students lining up buses to take voters to the polls on Super Tuesday.
Morgenstern said 2008 represents a change in the "cool" factor of getting involved in voting.
"The pendulum seems to have swung the other way from the era of irony and cynicism when it was not cool to care about what's going on in the country. The standoffish, cynical time that overtook young people is being replaced by a feeling that getting involved matters and that you can have an impact. There's something going on on-campus and off-campus that it's cool to care again," he said.
The University of Hartford has a program called "The Blitz," in which student groups have booths set up in the student center with information about candidates' backgrounds and politics, and information about polling places.
Trinity recently hosted a voter registration drive and a mock primary and the secretary of the state showed up. One of Yale's colleges also hosted a fake primary, during which students were asked to drop a garbanzo bean in a coffee can for the candidate they support. Former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ned Lamont and actor Kal Penn, best known for his work in the movie "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," were expected to campaign for Obama at rallies at Wesleyan, Yale and UConn Friday.
Marks said that talk of politics on Yale's campus had been limited in the past few years, even when discussion on Iraq, health care and education were in the news.
"Now it's the topic of everyone's conversation," said Marks, who has been campaigning for Obama.
For better or for worse, participation in the election process has become ingrained in typical college life, even when politics normally would be the last thing on students' minds.
On a recent Saturday night, instead of going to their weekend bars, they decided to party indoors, playing a drinking game during Obama's speech after he won the Democratic primary in South Carolina. The rules of the game were that each participant picked a word or name, such as "change" or "South Carolina," and had to take a drink whenever Obama said any of those words.
"It's nerdy, but it's fun," Marks said. "It's exciting to get wrapped up in something like this."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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