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If Young Americans Voted

By Froma Harrop

They like Rudy and Barack. They worry most about Iraq, and over half think the country's on the wrong track. They are liberal, but not always.

We speak of 18- to 24-year-olds, a group that's worn many labels. Some call them "Generation Y" because they're younger than Generation X. They've been named "Generation 9/11" for obvious reasons. My favorite tag is "Millennials," because of its historic sweep. The last Millennial Generation lived in the year 1000, when the Vikings were ravaging the British Isles.

A big political question about this group is: How will they vote? The bigger one is: Will they vote? It's hard to gauge these folks because so many rely on cell phones, which may not be used for polling. On the other hand, they're easy to reach on the Internet.

Democrats have long pursued the so-called youth vote. Their perennial hope has been that young people, who are traditionally liberal, would march to the polls in greater numbers. But they usually wake up the first Wednesday in November realizing that their Great White Whale had overslept once again.

When the voting age was dropped to 18 in 1972, all hailed a new era for youthful involvement in our democracy. The reality is that over the last 35 years, the youngest group's participation in elections has steadily dropped.

Democrats detected a sign of life in 2004, when the Millennials' turnout rose to 47 percent from 36 percent in 2000. But the Bush-Kerry match excited more of everyone. In the end, young people's share of the electorate remained at 17 percent, unchanged from 2000.

A surge in college voters in 2006 is said to have delivered victory to Democrats Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Jim Webb of Virginia. But others give the credit to single women.

A new Pew Research Center survey touches on the apparent lack of political knowledge among Millennials. Its objective was to test whether Americans are more or less informed about current affairs than they were in 1989. The conclusion is that they know about as little now as they did then.

The survey did compare age groups, and the 18- to 29-year-olds did far worse than the others. Only 15 percent had a "high knowledge" of current affairs, and 59 percent had "low knowledge." The remaining 29 percent were in the middle.

These weren't trick questions about the president of Pakistan. Only 26 percent of respondents in the youngest group knew that the Sunnis are one of the two main branches of Islam, the other being the Shiites. Only 55 percent could name their governor.

As a Pew analyst told me, knowledge of public affairs always increases with age. Still, the report offers little optimism for any vast improvement. Only 15 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds read a daily newspaper. More of them (26 percent) get their news from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report" than by listening to National Public Radio (17 percent).

Another recent survey, from Harvard's Institute of Politics, attempts to assess the political attitudes of the 29 million Americans age 18 and to 24. It finds that 35 percent identify with Democrats and 25 percent with Republicans, but 40 percent with neither. Some 61 percent think health insurance is a basic right, and only 23 percent want religious values to play a strong role in government.

The Millennials sound liberal but feel independent. If push comes to shove, they'd probably be Democratic voters, were they to vote.

Stand aside, Boomers and Xers, the Harvard report declares, "The Millennial Generation is preparing in 2008 to make their voice heard again, perhaps louder than ever." We shall see.

fharrop@projo.com

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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