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Are the young voters up for grabs?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, August 15, 2004

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Are you still struggling with the question of whether John Edwards was the Democrat's best choice for John Kerry's running mate?

Too many young people are disengaged from election politics.

If so, you ought to check the following quote from Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballentine: "So many young Americans today feel disengaged from the political process, yet so many issues have a tremendous effect on their lives. My campaign's new ideas and our new leadership is going to give young people a reason to vote again."

Some editors might want to correct Ballentine's grammar. But few would argue with his premise that too many young people are disengaged from election politics.

The lead story in the August edition of "South Now," a publication of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, is headlined "Young-Adult Voters Up for Grabs." The story's first paragraph explains, ".[Y]oung voters are as untapped a voting resource as a candidate can hope to find. They are relatively non-partisan, they are receptive to grassroots campaigning, they care about most of the same issues as the general voting public-and they make up about 15 percent of the voting population. They also do not vote as regularly as their elders."

Just as Republicans hope that Ballentine's youth and energy can appeal to our state's young voters this year, Democrats are counting on the same qualities in Edwards to swing them into the Kerry-Edwards camp on election day.

Those seeking the support of young voters face an enormous challenge-getting young people to the polls. In the 2000 election, 64 percent of the nation's population 25 years and older voted. Only 37 percent of those in the 18-24 age group made it to the polls.

This enormous challenge also presents an enormous opportunity. If candidates like Ballentine and Edwards could engage younger voters enough to motivate them to register and vote for them, they would tap a deep reservoir of support. In a close election, an increase in young voter support and participation could make all the difference.

Perhaps even more importantly, young voters become older voters over time. So the party identification that often develops from support of a particular candidate will have a long-term effect on the strength each of the major parties for years to come.

Democrats who read this month's "South Now" will find little comfort in its report on the party identification of young voters. Based on exit polls taken in 2002, in the 18-24 age group of voters, only 34 percent identify themselves as Democrats compared with 40.9 percent for Republicans. For comparison, in the 60-64 age group the numbers are 41.2 percent for Democrats and 36.7 percent for Republicans.

Those were national figures. The news is even worse for Democrats in the South where the 18-24 age group goes only 25.8 percent for Democrats and 48.3 percent for Republicans.

If these poll figures are correct, Ballentine's challenge is to take advantage of them by mounting an effort to get more young people to the polls.

Edwards has the more difficult task of sailing against this "ill wind" and persuading young voters to change their political direction.

But maybe some "help is on the way" for Edwards and his team.

Polls taken late last year and earlier this year showed Bush with a strong edge among younger voters when matched against a Democratic candidate. However, this Sunday's Washington Post reported a dramatic reversal: "In the latest Post-ABC News poll, taken immediately after the Democratic National Convention, Kerry led Bush 2 to 1 among registered voters younger than 30."

What explains this apparent turn around? Among the factors cited by the Post are young peoples' heightened concerns about the war in Iraq and their worry about their job prospects in an uncertain economy.

But, before Democrats celebrate this apparent change in attitude, they should wait until they see polls taken after next week's convention when Republicans will have a monopoly on presentation of their case-as the Democrats did just before the recent poll was taken.

No, they had better delay any celebration until the November election results come in.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m.

Upcoming programs:

August 29: Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities

September 5: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

September 12: Bill Thompson, Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs

September 19: Orrin Pilkey, How to Read a North Carolina Beach

September 26: Orin Starn, Ishi's Brain

October 3: Karen Barker, Sweet Stuff

October 10: Dr. Gerald Bell, The Carolina Way

October 17: BJ Mountford, Bloodlines of Shackleford Banks

October 24: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

October 31: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

November 7: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

November 14: John May, Poe & Fanny

November 21: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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