Young voters in S.C. hope to sway election

gnsmith@thestate.comSeptember 23, 2008 

  • FIVE ISSUES

    What young voters are most concerned about this campaign season

    1. EDUCATION. Young people are most concerned about the rising cost of college and the availability of financial aid.

    2. JOBS. The economy is faltering at a time when young voters worry about landing jobs and having access to credit.

    3. IRAQ. Most young voters favor ending the war in Iraq. War is a resonant issue with younger voters, as they are the Americans most often enlisting in the military and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    4. ENERGY. Young voters favor the reduction of greenhouse gases through the use of alternative energy sources.

    5. HEALTH CARE. Young voters are the group most likely to lack health insurance.

    SOURCE: George Washington University poll of youth voters

Farris Johnson and Rachel Easterbrook, both 16, aren’t old enough to cast a vote in November for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

That hasn’t stopped the teen duo and several of their underage friends from volunteering with the Obama campaign. After school and on the weekends, they hit the streets with bags swelling with voter registration cards and high hopes of dispelling Internet rumors many young people believe.

“Obama is not a Muslim. We hear that one the most,” Johnson said. “We talk to people about how he’s someone who is listening, someone who’s in tune with our generation.”

Such youthful exuberance is creating buzz that, after many false stops and starts, 2008 is the year in which the youth vote wins an election.

“There are enough 18- to 29-year-olds that if they really did rise up and there was a significant bias in which direction they voted, they really could sway an election as close as this one,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist.

Polling shows a large youth turnout would benefit Obama, a young father who plays basketball, listens to hip-hop artist Jay-Z on his iPod and only recently paid off his student loans.

The most recent Gallup polls show a breakdown of 18- to 29-year-olds preferring Obama 55 percent to McCain’s 40 percent because of his stance on issues like environmental conservation and ending the war in Iraq.

“This is really the year that young people are going to make it happen,” predicts John Trowell, 21, a volunteer with South Carolina’s Obama campaign. “The proof was the January primary — so many eager volunteers and so many new voters.”

A DEMOCRATIC TREND?

In the primary, the state’s Democratic Party broke its turnout record with more than 532,000 voters casting ballots, many of them young, eclipsing the 280,000 who voted in 2004’s primary.

In contrast, about 446,000 took part in the Republican primary, about 12,000 below the record set by the GOP in 2000.

Voting momentum has snowballed in the months since.

An additional 132,000 South Carolinians have registered to vote since February, according to the state Election Commission.

Obama’s S.C. campaign manager Trav Robertson is convinced the overwhelming majority of those new voters are Obama backers, registered by the campaign, and young voters.

“South Carolina is a tough state for Democrats,” Robertson said. “If the electorate doesn’t swing your way, change the face of the electorate. That’s what we’re doing.”

South Carolina Republican chairman Katon Dawson disagrees with that contention.

“When you register them, you don’t know who they’re voting for,” Dawson said, noting some may not go to the polls.

Certainly, McCain is making a play for young voters, too, despite being a grandfather who loves the ’70s pop music group ABBA and who admits to knowing little about computers.

During the 1980s, Republicans won the twentysomething voting bloc with wide margins. Ronald Reagan, the oldest president, owned the youth vote in 1980 and 1984.

Patrick Haddon, state chairman of the S.C. Federation of Young Republicans, sees plenty of young people fired up for McCain, particularly since he named Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska his vice presidential pick.

“How cool would it be to have an energetic vice president in her 40s?” Haddon said.

Dawson notes many of South Carolina’s 6,000 Republican volunteers working every weekend are young people. “Our teenage Republicans, our college Republicans are just on fire. These young people realize this is the most liberal ticket we’ve had in modern times.”

And while Haddon is aware many young people are flocking to Obama, he thinks the upcoming debates will change minds.

“Young people like (Obama) based on the fact that he’s a great speaker when he has a teleprompter in front of him, but they don’t know the issues. They just know they’re against George Bush and the war. Young people often don’t look at the facts, the issues,” Haddon said. “I think we’ll start seeing some drop off the Obama bandwagon during the debates when they see he doesn’t have the experience, the substance needed.”

HISTORY IS NOT ON THEIR SIDE

McCain has something else in his favor: history

Younger voters do not show up at the polls at the same level as older voters who, this election cycle, prefer the Arizona senator.

“By far, it’s better to have a lead with old people than the young,” surmised Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Youth support didn’t win the White House for Howard Dean in 2004 despite abundant campaigning on college campuses and using the Internet for youth outreach.

And it didn’t pan out for anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern either who, in 1972, excited the youth vote.

Statistically, fewer than half of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 1972, the first year 18-year-olds earned the right. By 1976, it was 42 percent.

Recent elections haven’t improved the situation with only 32 percent in 2000 and a slight uptick in 2004.

It’s a similar scene in the Palmetto State. Exit polling from the S.C. Republican primary shows 10 percent of voters fell into the 18 to 29 age range, while 14 percent did so in the Democratic primary.

Young people in South Carolina, Democrats and Republicans alike, say those numbers will improve drastically in November.

“This is a historical moment, and young people get that,” said Trowell, an Allen University student. “This is our year.”Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.

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