By Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Some voters under 30 are conservatives. An equal number are liberals. But a striking majority of the Millennial generation agrees on one thing: who should be the next president.
A USA TODAY/MTV/Gallup Poll of registered voters 18 to 29 years old shows Democrat Barack Obama leading Republican John McCain by 61%-32%, the most lopsided contest within an age group in any presidential election in modern times. Obama's margin is overwhelming across four groups of younger voters, divided by their engagement in the election, their optimism about the future and other factors.
"I think he can actually relate a great deal more to our interests and values and beliefs," says Lisa Kettunen, 24, of Otego, N.Y. Kettunen, an administrator at Hartwick College who was among those polled, particularly likes Obama's stands on protecting the environment and forging better relations around the world.
"We have a lot of really great ideas and hopes for change," Kettunen says of her generation, "and he's really speaking to what we want."
Some Republicans fear that whatever the outcome Nov. 4, movement of this generation to Obama could set political views through their lifetimes, reverberating in future elections.
"This is the equivalent of the Reagan brigades, where a whole class of people identify with a politician," says Dan Bartlett, a veteran of the Bush White House, calling it "a real wake-up call" for the GOP. Bartlett, 37, grew up during Reagan's presidency, which begat a generation of young conservatives.
'FIRED UP' PROFILE: Sold on their election pick
'UPBEAT' PROFILE: Optimistic about the future
'DOWNBEAT' PROFILE: Wary of the future
'TUNED OUT' PROFILE: They're just not into it
If young people vote for Obama by current margins, he says, "Katy bar the door."
"This is the time in life you really start to grow your political roots," Obama adviser Linda Douglass says of those under 30.
Obama's strength among younger voters has offset his relative weakness among older ones and reshaped the electoral map. It has helped put states with comparatively young populations, such as Colorado and New Mexico, in Obama's reach and made older states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio a harder sell for him than for previous Democratic candidates.
From the opening caucuses in Iowa — where he organized at every college and many high schools — Obama has targeted young voters with his political messages and campaign methods. He has made unprecedented use of online fundraising to finance his campaign and social networking and text messaging to reach voters. Those techniques have underscored his connection with younger Americans.
"Sen. Obama clearly has some advantages with young voters," acknowledges Michael DuHaime, political director for the McCain campaign, though he says the Republican ticket will get its share of their votes. He predicts Americans under 30 "are going to turn out in strong numbers."
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The USA TODAY poll of more than 900 young Americans, taken Sept. 18-28, included interviews by land lines and cellphones, which increasingly are relied on by younger Americans. (Three-fourths of those surveyed have a cellphone; one in five report using social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to discuss the election.)
By a crushing 6 to 1, those polled say Obama, 47,understands "the problems of people your age" better than McCain, 72.
It's not only a matter of age: Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, at 44 the youngest nominee on a major-party ticket, gets the most negative favorability ratings of all among the under-30 crowd.
"Once McCain announced that Palin was on his ticket, that pretty much sealed the deal," says Nikki Boone, 26, of Middletown, Del. Once "open" to both contenders, she has decided to support Obama. "I don't think Palin is a viable candidate," she says.
By 55%-32%, younger voters say Palin isn't qualified to serve as president, if that were to become necessary. By 59%-19%, they call Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, 65, qualified.
Meanwhile, Obama's favorable ratings among those under 30 reach positive territory that is rare for a politician: 71% favorable, 23% unfavorable.
Big question: But will young people turn up at the polls?
Answer: Not all of them — about one in five are paying little attention to the campaign — and probably not at the rate more reliable older voters turn out on Election Day. But that gap narrowed significantly in 2004, when younger voters gave Democrat John Kerry his strongest support of any age group in his loss to President Bush.
Challenging the boomers
Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center calculates there are 58 million members of the Millennial generation eligible to vote this year, about one-quarter of the total electorate and second in size only to the aging Baby Boomer generation. Voters under 30 made up 14% of the those who voted in 2000; 16% in 2004.
Their participation has been on the rise. The turnout rate for young voters jumped 9 percentage points in 2004 from 2000. In presidential primaries, their turnout nearly doubled in 2008 from 2000, the last time there were contests in both parties.
"In '04 they disliked Bush and in '08 they really like Obama," says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a Tufts University research center on civic engagement and youth. "But as several of these happen in a row you start to wonder whether it's about the kids, not the candidate, at least to some degree. Other measures of civic engagement such as volunteering are much higher in this decade than they were over the preceding 20 years. When young people get involved in community service, they ask whether they should also be involved in politics."
For many, that participation has a Democratic stamp. By 40%-21%, young people consider themselves Democrats rather than Republicans.
Among all voters in the most recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, the partisan breakdown was a closer 35%-28%.
Among young voters, one-third of those who say their parents and families are mostly Republican see themselves as Democrats. Just 12% of those who families are mostly Democratic call themselves Republicans.
A USA TODAY analysis divided younger adults into four groups based on their level of political engagement, their optimism or pessimism about the country's future, their trust in the presidential candidates and the influences they cite as shaping their political views.
Those groups are:
• Fired up: Registered to vote, paying a lot of attention to the election and firmly committed to a candidate. (Read profile of a 'fired up' voter)
• Upbeat: The most optimistic about the future and favorably inclined toward both contenders. (Read profile of an 'upbeat' voter)
• Downbeat: The most pessimistic about the future and somewhat less likely to be engaged in the election. (Read profile of a 'downbeat' voter)
• Tuned out: The group least likely to be registered or paying attention to the election and the youngest of the groups. (Read profile of a 'tuned out' voter)
Obama's lead ranges from 38 points among the "upbeat" to 26 points among the "tuned out."
His margin among younger voters overall, if it holds up on Election Day, would exceed anything recorded for an age group since 1976, when the first surveys of voters leaving polling places were taken. It would be bigger than the double-digit advantages for Bill Clinton among younger voters in 1996 and for Reagan among several age groups in his 1984 landslide.
A war their friends fight
Younger voters are more likely than older ones to cite education and the environment as major concerns. But they echo their elders when it comes to the top issue this year: the economy. Three in 10 call it the single most important issue determining their vote, and nearly half call it one of the most important.
"I probably vote more on the side of being a social conservative, but that's not what makes me wake up in the morning," says Wesley Neese, 26, a McCain supporter from Columbia, S.C.
"He's not my perfect candidate, but I do like his strong position on cutting spending," in tune with Neese's conservative fiscal views.
On the war in Iraq, ranked as the second-most important issue, younger voters are more likely than older ones to support pulling U.S. troops out now or to back setting a firm timetable for withdrawal — Obama's position. One in four support McCain's stance of keeping U.S. troops deployed there until the situation is stable, even if that takes years.
It is a war fought disproportionately by their generation. While just 2% say they have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, three of four know someone who has. Nearly one-third know someone who has been killed or injured in the two conflicts.
On lighter matters, younger voters by double-digit margins say they'd rather have a beer with Obama than McCain. They say they'd prefer Obama as a teacher or a boss, and would rather go to him for advice.
On one question, though, they rank McCain first, perhaps reflecting curiosity about the Arizona senator and former Navy pilot's compelling life story: They'd rather read his private diary.
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