Generation Y's First Vote: Affluent, Eager to Serve but Turned off by Politics, Young Voters Are a Tantalizing Prize. How the Pols Are Trying to Court Them

Article excerpt

Bill Clinton and Tawan Davis should be soulmates, leaders in youth politics 33 years and a generation apart. In 1967, when baby boomers were coming of age, Clinton was in the political vanguard. As a junior at Georgetown, he ran for student-government president, and lost--but still found his life's work. He became an intern on Capitol Hill, studied documents about Vietnam and idolized Martin Luther King Jr. When King was assassinated and Washington erupted in race riots, Clinton loaded his white Buick with groceries for the ghetto. Then, in the summer of 1968, he went home to Arkansas to work in his first campaign. Within six years Clinton was running on his own.

Davis, 21, now has the job Clinton coveted long ago. But in other ways his story, surroundings and outlook couldn't be more different. There is no war or draft to give politics life-and-death urgency. Race remains an issue, but in a less sweeping, more personal way. There were incidents of intolerance on campus last year--a menorah was toppled, racial and anti-gay graffiti were scrawled on walls. Davis, a diligent, soft-spoken African-American from Oregon, won as a symbol of unity. And what about summer, when a young pol's fancy turns to campaigning? "Politics for politics' sake is very dangerous," he said. He took Manhattan instead--a job at Goldman Sachs.

"Generation Y" is reaching majority in politics. The first demographic cadre to exceed the boomers in size and affluence, the "millennials" will begin coming of age in this November's election, when some 14 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 will be eligible to vote in a presidential contest for the first time. George W. Bush and Al Gore have geared up vast "youth vote" operations, and Ralph Nader--who hopes to become the Pied Piper of 2000--now is running a Third Way children's crusade. The campaigns know they're on to something: together with Hispanics and white women, Gen-Yers (along with the wave just ahead of them, the Gen-Xers) could decide the outcome in November.

If they show up. Reared in relative comfort, mesmerized by an expanding array of entertainments, eager for community service but deeply suspicious of traditional politics, America's youngest adults are less likely than any before them to actually vote. Bill Clinton was at the leading edge of the boomer years, when the voting age was lowered in 1972 and nearly half the young went to the polls. But the percentage has been dropping slowly ever since. This fall, experts predict, fewer than a third of all voters under 30 will vote--and only a quarter of those newly eligible in Generation Y. "For young people, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of passion or purpose in capital-P politics," says Davis.

In fact, millennials are quite interested in civic life, but define it in more personal terms than their parents do. The young even express grudging interest in electoral politics, but only if it's defined as something other than a two-party system they see as irrelevant, corrupt or worse. In a special NEWSWEEK Poll--the first national poll specifically aimed at the youngest new voters--Generation Yers made the point clear. Nearly two thirds (64 percent) agreed that the country "should have a third major political party." The younger the voter, the more likely they are to feel that way. "Democrats and Republicans, Gore and Bush--they all seem like so much blah, blah, blah," says John Dervin, 26, political and debates director for Youth Vote 2000, a nonpartisan civic group.

Young voters tend to doubt that there's a connection between going into a voting booth and addressing a problem that matters to them. Schools spend less effort on civic education these days. And ceremonies that once transmitted a sense of respect for politics--like families' watching the nightly news--have vanished. Studies show that "kids just look for news on the Internet," says Harvard government professor Tom Patterson. …