Will youth make a difference?

Tammy Hsu is one of those 20-something voters who can drive a presidential candidate crazy.

She registered to vote during the recent Illinois “grace period” and cast an early vote in her state’s Super Tuesday primary. But she’s still not completely sold on any candidate, not even Barack Obama, the home-state Democrat widely depicted as the choice of young voters.

Nor is she committed to a political party.

“I don’t want to associate myself with a party because I learn something new every day. I try to make an educated decision,” says Hsu, a 23-year-old theater worker from Chicago. She didn’t reveal how she voted for in the primary and still considers herself undecided for the general election.

With young voter registration rising and a strong independent streak among them, there are a lot more people like Hsu out there.

“Political professionals haven’t liked dealing with them. They’d rather not deal with the wild card — but in a very close election, you need to play your wild cards,” says Peter Levine, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, also known as CIRCLE.

His organization has tracked the marked increase in young voter participation in the 2004 and 2006 elections and — as recent exit polls for The Associated Press and TV networks have shown — in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. CIRCLE also has compiled a new study of young voters with Rock the Vote, one of the more widely known get-out-the-vote organizations that targets young people.

The study found that increased voter participation extends beyond college students to young people from many walks of life — working to unemployed, Asian American to Hispanic. Rock the Vote organizers also say the interest extends to states with upcoming primaries and caucuses, with a significant increase in young voters downloading registration forms online, compared with this time in 2004.

An AP analysis of registration records in Florida, which has a primary Tuesday, and California, one of the many states voting Feb. 5, found that the percentages of 18- to 29-year-old registered voters have already equaled young voter percentages at the time of the November 2004 presidential election.

As of late 2007, nearly 2.6 million Californians in the 18- to 29-year-old range were registered, representing 16.5 percent of all voters. Overall, that age group makes up about a third of the state’s population.

In Florida, 1.8 million 18- to 29-year-olds had registered by that time, representing about 15 percent of registered voters. About a quarter that state’s population falls into that age bracket.

Experts who track young voters say that puts those states, and likely others, on track to surpass 2004 registrations. But whether that will produce actual votes remains to be seen.

There are those who are skeptical. Some think young voters were motivated four years ago by a strong dislike of George W. Bush: They were the only age group with a majority who backed losing candidate John Kerry.

“I don’t think they will turn out at the same rate that they did in 2004, partly because George Bush isn’t running, but that’s just reading early tea leaves,” says Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. “It’s just too early to tell what they’ll do.”

But many young voters say they and their peers are motivated.

“I think the biggest difference this time around is that people are waking up,” says Marc Clair, a 27-year-old from Venice, Calif., who’s never voted in a primary but plans to this time with a vote for Republican Ron Paul.

Like many young voters, Clair sees the economy and the war in Iraq as two of the most pressing issues. The environment, affordable college education and health care also top young voters’ lists.

“Many of us are frightened of what we are getting with our government,” says Clair, a freelance videotape operator who works in television. “But many of us are determined to change it as well.”

In addition to issues, a more diverse candidate pool is inspiring other young voters.

“We have two candidates, a woman and an African-American man, who have an actual chance of winning. So I thought this was a historic election I should take part in,” says Avery White, a 20-year-old prelaw student at Roosevelt University in Chicago who recently registered for the first time.

John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, has witnessed the shift from the days when young people thought their vote didn’t matter.

“Sept. 11 changed that,” says Della Volpe, who oversees the institute’s regular national polls of young people, on and off college campuses. He says the Iraq war also has inspired political involvement — as have the growing number of candidates who’ve made attempts to engage young voters.

“They want to vote. They want to participate. They just want to be asked sometimes,” Della Volpe says.

Last summer, Della Volpe offered each of the campaigns a chance to view the institute’s research, including polls of young people taken over the last eight years. Most accepted the offer, he said.

“But with some campaigns, I talked to an intern,” Della Volpe says. “With others, I talked to 15 paid staff people.”

Overall, he’s seen Democrats making the biggest play for young voters. Obama, who hired a national youth vote director last spring, was among the first. Other candidates have stepped up their efforts recently.

In November, for instance, the Clinton campaign launched “Students for Hillary” on campuses and at high schools across California. And daughter Chelsea has become a fixture on the campaign trail.

“We’re going to aggressively reach out to voters of all ages,” says Luis Vizcaino, a California spokesman for the Clinton campaign.

Young evangelicals — part of “Huck’s Army” — helped Republican and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee win Iowa.

And though Sen. John McCain is one of the oldest candidates, his staff says his iconoclast appeal to young voters helped him win New Hampshire and, to some extent, South Carolina. They’re hoping for even greater support elsewhere.

So far, however, no candidate has benefited more from young voter support than Obama, especially in Iowa and South Carolina, where he got more than half the youth vote. In South Carolina, exit polls showed his youth support at 67 percent.

That should quiet the skeptics, says Hans Riemer, Obama’s youth vote director: “We believe that this generation is going to rise to the occasion.”


On the Net:

CIRCLE: http://civicyouth.org

Harvard Institute of Politics: http://www.iop.harvard.edu/