Young Adults Rebuilding Democratic Party

By Zlatos, Bill | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 24, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Young Adults Rebuilding Democratic Party


Zlatos, Bill, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Stephanie Dappenbrook, a junior at Seton Hill University, has registered voters on campus and during a rock concert at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg in hopes of enlisting future supporters of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

"His first priority is going to be mending the country," said Dappenbrook, 20, a junior from Beaver.

Pundits say young people like Dappenbrook are making history. More than any other time in the past 40 years, college students are playing a key role in the rise of a major political candidate, political observers say. They might be rebuilding a party.

"What Barack Obama has the possibility of doing is creating a Democratic majority for a generation because you have all these people registering as Democrats," said David Barker, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. "Once they do that, the vast, vast majority of them are never going to vote for someone from the opposite party."

Citing Obama's ability to attract young people, Barker compared him to Ronald Reagan. Reagan changed the Republican Party by drawing union members, Catholics and evangelicals, all of whom previously tended to vote for Democrats.

If Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, loses the nomination, Democrats could lose the youth bloc he has been building, Barker said. But if his Democratic rival, U.S. Sen Hillary Clinton of New York, were to become president, her election could solidify women behind the party, Barker said.

"There already is a slight gender gap in American politics," he said. "If Hillary Clinton gets the nomination and wins the election, it will be largely (because) of women voters. That could expand and cement that gender gap for a long, long time."

Michael McKee, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in how people make decisions, said Clinton has been energizing women, especially young women.

"The fact that we have people of different races and different genders from those that have been on the ticket before is a sign to the young people that differences can happen and those that have been excluded can be included now," he said.

Rocking enthusiasm

Rock the Vote, which aims to increase young adults' participation in the political process, says turnout among 18- to 29-year-old voters has increased in the primaries or caucuses of each state. Overall, the number of 18- to 29-year-old voters this year is more than double that of the most recent contested presidential primaries, Rock the Vote says. The percentage of young voters is growing faster than the percentage of older voters, the group says.

Clinton leads Obama among women in Pennsylvania by 57 percent to 29 percent, according to the Franklin & Marshall College Poll of registered Democrats. Voters 18 to 29 years old -- traditionally the group least likely to vote -- have turned out at the polls in record numbers nationally, Barker said. They form Obama's base.

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