With their Web logs, Facebook profiles and college rallies, the 2008 presidential candidates are lavishing attention on a group that displays unbridled enthusiasm early in the campaign but tends to lose interest when the voting starts.
For all the star-studded voter registration drives featuring the likes of Madonna and Sean "Diddy" Combs, more than half of the people in the United States age 18 to 24 who are eligible to vote typically are no-shows on Election Day. By comparison, some 70 percent of those 45 and older cast their ballots, according to the Census Bureau.
So while young people are front and center in spreading the word on candidates, it still is the Sinatra generation that is rockin' the vote.
"We have a long way to go," said Ben Unger, field director for PIRG New Voters Project. "Even if we had an equally engaged population as senior citizens, there's tons of room to be made up." One impediment: People 18 to 24 are highly mobile and hard to reach even with relaxed absentee balloting rules.
Voter turnout among young people rose in the 2004 election to 47 percent from 36 percent in 2000. It is an increase in motivation that candidates hope will build this time and last until November 2008.
"This election means a lot for young people," Republican Mitt Romney said in a recent interview. "This election will set a course that determines whether America remans the economic leader, the innovation leader of the world. Young people have the biggest stake in our future."
In the interview, Romney, 59, was not aware that he had a profile on Facebook.com, the social networking Web site with some 10 million users; an aide assured him that he did.
The profile highlights the former Massachusetts governor's interests (skiing, running, spending time with family, especially grandchildren) and favorite music (Roy Orbison, the Beatles, the Eagles).
The profile has encouraged supporters to form their own groups, "My Man Mitt," "College Students for Mitt Romney," and "Mitt for Michigan," among others.
One Facebook group backing Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has more than 300,000 members.
It was Facebook that helped turn out several thousand people at a rally for the freshman senator from Illinois at George Mason University in Virginia several weeks ago.
Joe Trippi, the Internet savvy campaign manager of Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 White House bid, said there was no way the Obama campaign alone could have organized an event that drew 3,000 at such an early stage in the campaign. Obama spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said much interest in the 45-year-old candidate among younger voters, particularly the activity on the Internet, has sprung up independent of the campaign. "Our task as a campaign is to find ways to embrace this grassroots enthusiasm and channel it," he said. Republican John McCain's outreach to younger voters includes establishing an online social network called McCainSpace where supporters can create their own pages and connect with one another. The 70-year-old Arizona senator chose to appear on "Late Night with David Letterman" to announce plans to make his presidential bid official. Beneva Schulte, speaking for Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd's Democratic presidential campaign, said: "We're not waiting for them to come to us; we're finding them where they live. College students, unless they're overtly political, don't go to political Web sites and attend political rallies, so we're meeting them on college campuses at Harvard and Howard - on Facebook and YouTube." Democrat John Edwards is on a tour of college campuses, with stops in California this weekend. Dean, a former Vermont governor, powered his way into contention in 2004 with his use of then-innovative blogs and other Internet tools to raise money and create a buzz around his candidacy, then faded after the primary voting started. "Today there are 55 million blogs, social networking tools available to the campaigns," Trippi said. "I envy them." Not only do Facebook and other networks provide backers, they also are a source of campaign cash. On his Web site, Obama urges Facebook followers to make a small contribution. Critical for the campaigns is whether they can keep the interest of young voters through the election. Trippi warned about the "self-fulfilling death spiral" in which in-house pollsters tell candidates that young people do not vote and urge the contender to focus on issues, including Social Security, that are favored by the elderly. "The 18, 19-year-old worrying about college says, â€˜Hey, they're not talking about things that interest me,'" Trippi said. Billy Valentine, 20, a sophomore at Franciscan College in Steubenville, Ohio, leads Students for Brownback, supporting Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback for the GOP nomination. Brownback, 50, is a favorite of religious conservatives. "My main goal is to create a student army for his campaign," said Valentine, a native of Alexandria, Va. But he acknowledges young people do not vote in the same numbers as their elders. "A big reason why students don't vote is they're not paying taxes yet," Valentine said. "They don't have thousands of dollars taken out of their salaries. Their parents are paying for their college education. They don't look at economics." One issue that could motivate students is the effort to raise the minimum wage at both the federal level and in some states, Valentine said. He explained that Ohio's increase in the wage has prompted his college to cut back hours for student jobs and eliminate some employment. "Once an issue really impacts a student directly, it motivates them," Valentine said.