Many political analysts believe that young American voters will be a key factor in this year's presidential election. But recent polls suggest that the youth vote is evenly divided between Republican President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry.
Jay Strell, a spokesman for Rock the Vote, a private, nonpartisan organization that encourages young people to register to vote, says the last time he saw such a high level of interest in a presidential election was twelve years ago, when the majority of young voters between the ages of 18 and 30 gave their support to then-candidate Bill Clinton. "We see a tremendous amount of engagement and enthusiasm amongst young voters," he said. "We haven't seen this sort of enthusiasm and engagement since 1992. The biggest difference this year, I would have to say, is there is no clear preference for the youth vote."
That near-even split parallels the 2000 election, when about 18 young million voters went to the polls, making up about one-sixth of the overall vote. Exit polls after that election showed that about half of voters under 30 chose Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore, the other half chose President Bush.
But Mr. Strell says there is one major difference this year. Two issues that were not high on the list of priorities for young people in 2000,- foreign policy and jobs, are now central issues. "They are in some ways the September 11th generation," he said. "This is the first presidential election since September 11th. And what September 11th did was it brought home to young people the connection between what happens overseas and how it can affect us here at home. And also how our foreign policy can have a direct impact on our daily lives."
According to Mr. Strell, the war in Iraq and the issue of a possible draft are high concerns for young people, because they are in the same age group as most of the soldiers who are stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast to the stock market boom of 2000, many young people are now having a hard time finding steady employment, and many do not have health insurance as a result.
Experts say those under 30 tend to pick a president not according to political party, but according to his stance on issues that matter to them. But Mr. Strell says pollsters do not have a full picture of young voters. "It's hard to poll young people. They don't have home phones," he said. "Pollsters don't call cell phones. So it's very difficult to get a consistent read on where exactly they in this election."
Rock the Vote predicts that third-party candidate Ralph Nader will not make a big impact in this election because surveys indicate that young people are focused on the two major candidates. The group says young voter turnout tends to be highest in areas where people can register to vote on Election Day, making the youth vote especially difficult to predict.