CHICAGO (Reuters) - Young Americans could turn out in record numbers in the November presidential election and all signs are that Democrat Barack Obama stands to benefit.
Coming of age during the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, Americans born between 1979 and 1990 -- labeled the “millennial generation” -- may shed a collective reputation as apathetic slackers when it comes to casting a ballot.
More than half the 44 million eligible U.S. voters aged 18 to 29 are expected to vote on November 4, analysts say, a turnout rate that still lags their elders but would narrow a shrinking gap.
If young voter turnout exceeds 50 percent, it would be only the third time since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972.
“They’re registering in record numbers. They sense the capacity they have to effect change in this country,” said former Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack.
A USA Today/MTV/Gallup poll published this week said that 61 percent of voters under age 30 favored Obama compared to 32 percent backing Republican John McCain -- which the poll said was the most lopsided ratio of any age group.
In contrast to older voters, young people interviewed by Reuters were open to the idea of electing the nation’s first black president. Obama’s relative youth -- he is 47 -- also attracts younger voters. McCain, at 72, would be the oldest president elected to a first term.
“He’s younger and he stands for a lot of things in terms of diversity that people have been waiting to happen,” said Sarah Lynch, 28, who works in photography sales in the Illinois senator’s hometown of Chicago.
“People are really frustrated with the Bush administration. ... I think in general people are really ready for something different,” she said.
Others are beginning to feel the economy’s sting.
“Because of the economy, I can’t get a private school loan. It’s hurting my chance to go to school next semester, so that’s why I care about voting so much,” said Kristina Meenan, an 18-year-old Chicago art student who intends to vote for Obama.
Another first-time voter, Parry MacDonald, 20, said she and her friends at Wheaton College, a Christian school outside Chicago, will vote for McCain because of the Arizona senator’s more conservative stance on abortion and social issues.
Voter registrations are up, but turnout remains a question that analysts say appears to be shifting.
“The young are a demographic that people think are unreliable or are not going to come out to vote,” said Erica Williams of the Center for American Progress, a think tank.
“The Iowa caucuses showed that, incredibly, that’s not going to be the case. Young voters are not just engaged because of all the hoopla and excitement. They’ve stayed consistently engaged since that first primary,” she said.
Turnout among younger voters declined from a peak of 55 percent in 1972 to 40 percent in the 1996 and 2000 elections.
But turnout rebounded to 49 percent in the 2004 -- the largest jump of any age group in an election that drew 61 percent of all eligible voters. The young made up 16 percent of the 2004 vote, up from 14 percent in 2000.
For this election, 58 percent of young people are registered to vote, compared to 83 percent of those over 30, said Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center.
One change is that young people tend to be attuned to the Internet, which offers ample opportunities to read and discuss how issues like the environment connect to politics, said Williams, who is 25.
Technologically savvy younger voters have downloaded printable voter registration forms from Web sites run by groups such as Rock the Vote, which said two-thirds of the 2.1 million people it helped register were under 30.
Many young voters will also get text messages on their cell phones on Election Day reminding them to vote. The campaigns also have tapped into Web sites such as Facebook to promote their messages.
Young voters also have their own perspective on issues important to the electorate as a whole, Williams said. They worry about how the current economic crisis will affect their school and job prospects, and are aware that the burden of fighting U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan falls on soldiers drawn from their age group.
“I think the country is at a pretty serious turning point,” said Peter Kersten, 26, who plans to vote for Obama. “What’s going on with the economy, and we’re fighting two wars. I’d say there’s a lot on the line and that hasn’t been the case the last two elections. I think it’s a pretty important vote.”
Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Bohan