College students Nathan Mertz and Shira Roza don’t have much in common.
Mertz is a sophomore at Augustana College, a small Lutheran affiliated liberal arts school in Illinois that has a student population of only 2,200. Meanwhile, Roza is a junior attending the robust University of Wisconsin-Madison, a place 41,000 badgers call home and Big Ten football is a time-honored tradition.
The cultural differences extend back to their roots, with Mertz originally hailing from Aberdeen, South Dakota, a small rural city in the northwestern part of the state and Roza coming from a self-described “prototypical” suburb of Milwaukee.
And then there’s their politics. Mertz is a staunch Republican, serving as an officer in the South Dakota College Republicans, and helping fellow conservatives organize and spread their message through campaigns, letter writing and petitions. Roza is an equally proud Democrat, a former intern with the pro-choice group NARAL and the Democratic Coordinated Campaign, and a veteran of some campaigns of her own.
But for all of their differences both Mertz and Roza have one thing in common: they say they definitely will be voting in the 2004 presidential election. And if a recent study by Harvard University is correct, Mertz and Roza might be joined at the polls by hundreds of thousands of other young people, who for the first time in generations seem interested in politics and voting.
The Harvard University Institute of Politics study has caused uproar in political circles with researchers finding that 59 percent of students said they will “definitely be voting” in the 2004 contest, and another 27 percent reported that they will “probably vote.” These new figures represent a dramatic jump for college students, as only 32 percent voted in the 2000 presidential election.
The survey also found that students do not consider themselves strong partisans in either direction. Nearly equal number of students aligned with the Republicans and Democrats, with a full 40 percent saying they are “independents.”
With 9.5 million people enrolled in a college or university-and the vast majority rejecting partisan labels-party officials say this age group is up for grabs and might have the chance to tip the election in either direction.
“This is a major demographic coming alive,” said Eric Hoplin, chairman of the College Republican National Committee. “If this demographic comes into play, then the youth could decide the outcome of the next election.”
His counterpart on the left, Stephanie Sanchez, executive director of the College Democrats of America, agreed. “There is every reason to believe that college students will vote in record numbers,” Sanchez said.
One reason that both parties believe greater political participation can be expected from younger voters is that candidates in both parties-Bush and especially Vermont Gov. Howard Dean-have been effective at targeting younger voters.
For Mertz and Roza, this certainly has been the case. Both students said they had a general interest in politics that began several years ago, but the pair also was adamant that the candidates themselves are a large part of their motivation to exercise their right to vote.
“We just love him on campus,” Mertz said, describing President Bush. Mertz said he was impressed with how the President handled himself after the September 11 terrorist attacks. “It was the pinnacle event. Everything just came to fruition after that. He has shown real leadership,” Mertz added.
Roza is equally enthusiastic about the Democratic front-runner Dean. Roza said that she first heard Dean at a College Democrats convention in January and has been hooked ever since.
“He just blew me away,” Roza said. “And it just wasn’t the issues. He had great rhetoric about taking back the Democratic Party and changing America; it just appealed to young people.”
Like Mertz, Roza said her candidate is “absolutely the main reason” she will be at the polls this winter and next fall.
Hoplin and Michael Whitney of Generation Dean, the Vermont governor’s youth outreach effort, said their organizations are making it easier for college students to get involved and that college students are moving in their direction.
Hoplin touts 10 full-time field staff, actively recruiting and motivating conservative students. He said that in his own time with the CRNC, he has seen growth in the number of students leaning toward the GOP.
“I have noticed the trends. We have really grown.”
Whitney touted Dean’s latest four-day eight-city tour that focused on young people and broke rally records in key primary states.
“Students showed up in record numbers. In this election cycle we finally have a candidate who spent four days of his time with college students.
That shows Dean is a person for our generation,” Whitney added.
Other nonpartisan organizations also are trying to get young students politically active. Black Entertainment Television recently announced that it would spend $1 million on television ads featuring well-known entertainers encouraging young people to vote. And World Wrestling Entertainment has teamed up with several other nonprofit organizations to promote youth voting.
But, despite all of the optimism, not everyone is convinced college students will finally show up at the voting booths. “I guess its possible, but I think it’s very, very unlikely,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Sabato said he has seen the same prediction made every election with no results.
“It just has not happened.”
Out of the field of candidates, Sabato thinks only Bush and Dean might be able to excite younger voters. Sabato contends the other Democrats fall flat with 18- to 24-year-olds.
“Bush has made a connection and Dean has certainly made a strong connection. But the other Democrats have not been able to excite young people to the same degree as Dean,” Sabato said. “They might like them and vote for them, but they just don’t get excited for them.”
While there is disagreement whether young people actually will vote, both Mertz and Roza agree that young people should vote. And both are equally committed to making sure the youth of America are behind their candidates.
“There is nothing more important than the future of our country. It’s extraordinarily important and we are going to get our message across,” Mertz said.
“Their vote matters. And young people will vote if they have an inspiring candidate, like Dean,” Roza said.
Roza also thinks that those students who stay home on Election Day forfeit another important political tool: the right to complain. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about what happens,” Roza said.
Bryan O’Keefe is a political communications senior at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for KRT Campus.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.