They may be all fired up and ready to go, but the young voters who have helped propel Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to front-runner status might stay home if the race turns nasty.
Obama has galvanized the under-30 voters who historically have voted at much lower rates than their parents. Young voters have packed the Illinois senator’s high energy rallies and turned out at rates up to four times higher than previous election years.
“It really helped him, actually seeing him talking and being there,” said 19-year-old Chelsea Barham, who attended an Obama rally at the University of Maryland and voted for him in that state’s recent primary.
By contrast, Democratic rival Hillary Clinton didn’t stop at the 34,000-student campus.
“We all felt a little left out,” Casey Mason-Foley, a 19-year-old sophomore and supporter of the New York senator.
Young people have been drawn to Obama’s campaign by his idealistic message and the strength of his grass-roots organizing, said Peter Levine of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which studies youth voting.
Turnout among young voters in New Hampshire rose to 43 percent, from 18 percent in 2004, according to the group.
But a negative campaign could stop the surge in its tracks, Levine and other researchers said.
“What could go wrong is if you get a food fight between the major parties,” Levine said. “Turnout will be much better if it is positive.”
Obama’s rivals are taking aim. Likely Republican nominee John McCain on Tuesday swiped at Obama’s “eloquent but empty calls for change,” and Clinton was sharpening her attacks as she falls farther behind in the delegate count.
The next state contests in Texas and Ohio, on March 4, are seen as must-win states for the New York senator and former first lady.
Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that many young voters had soured on politics due to bickering of the candidates in the run-up to the vote.
University of Maryland students echoed that opinion while standing in line to vote last week.
Obama supporter Anthony Gregg, 20, said he liked Hillary Clinton but he “didn’t like how she kind of made race a factor” during the South Carolina Democratic primary in January.
“I feel like there’s a lot of mudslinging in politics. I tried to avoid it,” said Ilana Kelsey, 18, as she stood in line at a University of Maryland polling place.
The under-30 “millennial generation” is not a monolithic voting bloc. While young Democrats have favored Obama over Clinton, young Republicans tend to support the same candidates as their parents, said Institute of Politics polling director John Della Volpe.
Republican candidate Mike Huckabee won the February 5 Missouri primary thanks to strong support from young voters. Some 45,000 young Missourians voted for the former Arkansas governor, more than his 23,000-vote margin of victory.
Still, Democrats in general have done a better job of appealing to young voters than Republicans, Della Volpe said.
“It would be wise for McCain to build those relationships now,” he said.