The Youth Vote Rises

Just a couple months ago the youth vote was the talk of the town as Howard Dean's popularity surged and the younger generation was given the credit. Dean's disappointing finishes all across the country lead many pundits and young people like me to wonder what will happen to the youth vote, in particular the 100,000-plus young people inspired by Generation Dean when he drops out of the race? Further, will Democratic insiders blame young voters for the Dean-fizzle or will the Party embrace the progressive element of this generation that is willing to fight for Anyone But Bush?

It is natural to assume that when Dean's once-unstoppable march to the nomination fails that his disappointed legion of young volunteers will become disengaged from the political process. However, my generation's political engagement is more complex than the simple attraction to one man, and the Democrats may still be able to keep under-30s in the fold with a message and strategy aimed at involving these important swing voters -- but they should not take anything for granted.

Dean's impressive early success with young people was a result of the radical notion of asking this generation to get involved. Perhaps out of desperation, a campaign that struggled early in 2003 embraced Web technology and invited young people to meet up once a month to talk politics. Joe Trippi's unique youth mobilization program involved running an issue-based campaign that valued young people, remained humble enough to ask for guidance, and accessible enough to receive it.

Dean's campaign was the first ever to reach out to young Americans, not just as campaign runts, but as participants in a discussion of political issues, as small financial contributors, as canvassers knocking on doors, as volunteers at service events, and as major leaders on the campaign. He appealed to young progressives with his willingness to stand up against the Iraq war, as an executive who had balanced budgets and as a courageous leader willing to fight for what is right, even if it is not popular.

Dean brought in many young people because he was the first to ask us for help, and we welcomed the invitation.

Interestingly enough, Dean did not lose Iowa or New Hampshire because younger voters who were excited about him stayed home. In Iowa the youth vote quadrupled and in New Hampshire it increased about 50 percent over 2000. I was in New Hampshire with Rock the Vote and spoke to many young people about the race. It appears that Dean has brought a lot of new people into the political process, but they are not all staying with him.

The saying in Iowa was "Dated Dean, Married Kerry." There, the huge spike in turnout did not all fall for Dean either; he came in second among young voters, 10 points behind Sen. John Kerry. There appears to be a split among young Democrats who are turning out to vote between those who believe that Dean is not electable and those who believe that Dean is our last chance for a candidate who won't conduct business as usual. (One student told me he did not like Kerry because he is "so BAU" -- Business As Usual.)

This all suggests that my generation is a little more complex than the media give us credit for. A popular misconception is the perceived dominance that Democrats have over the under-30 crowd. In fact, there is nearly an even split between Independents, Democrats and Republicans, and most young people say they vote on issues rather than party affiliation. Further, our generation is a lot more diverse than the rest of the population so the same, "partisan, old-white-male message" does not resonate with everyone my age as much as it does with those older than I who have heard very little else their entire lives. Basically, even Democrats need to show a degree of empathy for the racial, economic and educational disparities that young people face to inspire us to action.

I believe that many young people who responded to Howard Dean's inspirational call to action came to the conclusion that he is not the best messenger and bolted the perfect storm. And, most of those who stuck with him will still be engaged if he drops out because of the anger that is felt towards Bush. Kerry might be able to leverage my generation if he takes the necessary steps. With student-friendly Boston as part of his home-turf, he must have some understanding of the younger crowd. He speaks eloquently about progressive issues, has a strong record with programs like AmeriCorps, and brings to the table a military record and stature that look presidential. But he will need to focus even more on issues and specifically reach out to young people and get them involved. Right now he won't even accept donations from citizens younger than 18, while rivals Dean, Sen. John Edwards and Gen. Wesley Clark welcome those checks.

Edwards could have been the most likely candidate to bring young former Dean supporters into his campaign and the Democratic party. When he speaks about educational disparity, race in America, poverty and homelessness, his message resonates with many progressives in their 20s. He also had the best line during the CNN-Rock the Vote debate: "One of the problems that we have with young people today is people talk down to you. You know, you get all pigeon-holed. They've stereotyped you. Exactly the same thing happens with people from the South."

However, neither Edwards, nor Dean, nor any of the other candidates seem to be able to overtake Kerry -- especially if they all stay in the race canceling out any anti-Kerry vote.

Unfortunately, the role of the youth vote is destined to be muffled during the primary season. Since so many of us are registered as Independents, we are disenfranchised during primary season in most states unless we change our registration weeks in advance to be part of the Democratic Party. However, come the general election, the 41 percent of college students who are registered as Independents become critical swing voters, especially in states like Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Ohio and Missouri -- key states with sizable youth populations. Non-college youth are stepping up too, and a variety of organizations ranging from the League of Independent Voters, Punkvoter.com and various unions are mobilizing many of us not in college.

So come November, expect the youth vote to be felt. According to Harvard University's Institute of Politics, 59 percent of college students say they will vote on Election Day. With the nation so evenly divided between the parties, my generation possesses more than enough votes in swing states to make a difference. With Dean not likely to be on the ticket, the Democrats better hope he enthusiastically supports the eventual Democratic nominee and encourages him to use a similar issue-based, high-tech, high-touch approach style to make sure youth get inspired, turn out, and don't vote for the other side.

It all starts with simply asking us to get involved.

Scott Beale is the author of 'Millennial Manifesto: A Youth Activist Handbook,' and the founder of Millennial Politics.com.

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