WASHINGTON – Boxers or briefs?
Politicians — remember President Clinton (search) in 1994? — have put up with some personal questions in their quest to earn the affection and support of millions of young voters.
On Election Day, though, this courting has been largely unrequited.
Among people age 18 to 24, apathy toward the political process has grown, evident in the diminishing number of young voters who have turned up at the polls over the past three decades.
In the 2000 election, one of the closest in U.S. history, just 29 percent of eligible voters ages 18-24 — about 8.4 million — cast a ballot for president. They split their support for Republican George Bush (search) and Democrat Al Gore (search).
Overall, 55 percent of all eligible voters participated.
By contrast, slightly more than 45 percent of 21-to-24-year-olds voted in November 1968. At that time, a military draft was sending young men to war in Southeast Asia and the favorite candidate on college campuses, Democrat Eugene McCarthy (search), had already become political history.
Four years later, the voting age was lowered to 18 — and the decline in the youth turnout soon began.
"They got the franchise to vote at the end of a period of activist, idealistic engagement and at the beginning of a period of disillusionment," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
Among the reasons cited for the trend are cynicism about politics following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, a reduction in civics classes in schools and the declining influence of institutions such as political parties.
The end of the military draft and the Cold War, coupled with the economic boom of the 1990s, created a comfortable environment for many young people. Few saw a reason to bother on Election Day.
William Galston, a University of Maryland specialist on civic engagement, said many young adults have told researchers they do not see what they accomplish by voting. Others say they do not know where to vote or what they need to do to register. Some have chosen more direct roles, such as community service.
"Young people don't have an explicitly negative view of government, but they tend to feel it is remote," Galston said. "There has been a huge shift in the past generation toward voluntary sector work, the fact that you can control who receives your services."
There was a brief surge in voting by young people in 1992, when Clinton, Ross Perot and the first President Bush fought for the White House. That year, close to 38 percent of young voters went to the polls. Four years later, however, when Clinton — who answered "usually briefs" at an MTV town hall meeting — won re-election, the percentage of young voters had dropped to around 28 percent.
As the number of young voters decreased, several political campaigns focused their attention on more reliable voters, such as older Americans.
"The parties and candidates essentially turned away from trying to mobilize young people," said Scott Keeter, a political scientist who has researched young voters.
Still, the candidates have worked to capture the youth vote.
Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, whose Internet-driven candidacy plays well with a generation raised on computers, has undertaken "Generation Dean." It includes house parties, social events for young professionals and sessions to raise public awareness.
Rival John Edwards has proposed offering a year of free tuition to college freshmen willing to work or serve their communities for 10 hours a week.
This appeal to young voters will be front and center Tuesday night when Rock the Vote, an organization that tries to increase youth involvement in politics, sponsors a 90-minute town hall meeting with the candidates in Boston. The session will be aired on CNN.
Campaigns can attract more young people if they get the candidates and recruit contemporaries to talk directly to them, said Betsy Sykes, a Republican and a 22-year-old senior at Harvard University.
Tony Cani, a leader of Generation Dean and a 25-year-old student at Arizona State University, said candidates need to understand that young adults' failure to vote is not a sign they don't want to be involved.
"We go to soup kitchens, we volunteer with kids because we want to see the change we're creating," Cani said. "In the past when we've been courted, it's almost a ploy to show that a candidate is enthusiastic and young; we're props."