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Young voters plug in to politics

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (Reuters) - It’s not the neon lights or hip-hop beats that make this an unusual whistle stop in the November 2008 presidential contest. It’s the youthful faces of those in the crowd.

Young voters listen to U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, October 29, 2007. Young voters have historically taken part in U.S. elections at a much lower rate than the public as a whole, but the last two national elections have seen a substantial increase in participation. REUTERS/Andy Sullivan

At a high-tech forum sponsored by MTV and MySpace, some 200 Coe College students peppered Barack Obama with questions about Iraq, gay marriage and immigration, rewarding him with ear-shattering whoops when his answers meet their approval.

They’ve passed interviews and lined up hours ahead of time for seats at the event.

But when the 46-year-old junior senator from Illinois asks how many plan to take part in Iowa’s caucus in January, fewer than one-third raise their hands.

“You can be part of the solution,” Obama tells them. “If just the student body at Coe participated, you’d be a huge bloc.”

If the history of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential contest is any indication, they won’t be. The average age of the Iowa caucus-goer is nearly 55, according to Iowa State political science professor Steffen Schmidt. This year’s caucus takes place on January 3, when many students will be out of state for the holidays, and voting absentee is not an option.

The Iowa caucuses -- widely watched as an indication of who might win a party’s presidential nomination -- are gatherings of voters across the state that are one step in the process of picking delegates to a party’s national nominating convention.

“If I was home I would definitely participate,” said Jennifer Winter, 21, who will be in Costa Rica with the school choir. “Things are going to turn out the way they turn out.”

For nearly 30 years, the story of young Americans and politics has been one of mutual neglect: Young people didn’t turn out on Election Day, so politicians didn’t court them.

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Some 52 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 1972 presidential election, compared with 68 percent of all eligible voters, a 15-percentage-point gap. By 2000, that gap had yawned to 27 points as youth participation had dropped to 36 percent.

But that may be changing. In 2004, participation among young voters increased to 47 percent. It edged up again in the 2006 congressional election as well.

Field organizers say heavy turnout on college campuses in Virginia and Montana helped Democratic Senate candidates narrowly defeat Republican incumbents in those states in 2006, tipping control of Congress to Democrats.

WARS A FACTOR

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made young people more aware of current events, and high schools have pushed them to become more active in their communities, said Kathleen Barr, director of research and education at Rock the Vote, a non-partisan group focused on mobilizing young voters. Easier voter registration and outreach have helped as well, she said.

Polls show the newest voters favor Democrats over Republicans by a 22 percent margin and are much more liberal-leaning than their elders on social issues like immigration, race and homosexuality.

“The (Republican Party) to some extent frightened them off by being too harsh,” Schmidt said.

There are plenty of them as well -- 50 million citizens under 30 will comprise a quarter of all eligible voters next year.

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That hasn’t escaped the attention of the Democratic presidential candidates. Front-runner Hillary Clinton unveiled a plan to make college more affordable. Obama’s campaign has a dozen staffers working on youth outreach and claims student chapters at more than a third of Iowa’s high schools.

Most polls show Obama trailing Clinton by a narrow margin in Iowa, where he must finish strongly to overcome the former first lady’s 20-point lead in national polls.

A University of Iowa poll released on Monday found Obama holds an overwhelming lead over Clinton among Iowa voters under 45 -- 41 percent to 19 percent. But fewer than half of Obama’s supporters said they are likely to caucus, the poll found.

“We feel pretty confident that a young person we identify as a supporter, who we talk to several times, who comes out to volunteer for us, will come out to caucus,” said Obama national youth coordinator Hans Riemer. “It’s about building relationships.”

Thus the race could hinge on voters like Leah Reuber, 19, who came away from the MTV event determined to show up at a caucus to vote for Obama in her home town of Bellevue.

“Having someone younger in the office of the president would be a really great change,” Reuber said. “They might be more in touch with how things really are in the real world, as opposed to the same rich, white males.”

To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/

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