WASHINGTON – President Bush is selling his Social Security (search) reform plan to young Americans, hoping their enthusiasm can help convince lawmakers to push through landmark policy change. But the payoff could also mean more young Republican voters, say political observers.
"I think [Republicans] are genuinely hoping to appeal and attract young people, not just on the Social Security issue, but in the long term. They see the young people as the lynchpin for creating a conservative New Deal (search)," said Hans Riemer, director of the Washington, D.C., field office for Rock the Vote (search), the national youth-oriented voter education campaign.
"They think they can lock in people for a long time to come," Riemer added.
All presidents and their parties actively make generational appeals, using pending legislation and initiatives as proof they are paying attention and focusing energy on a particular age group — youth included, say analysts.
"Is it typical? I think so — look at [President] Clinton, look at [President] Kennedy," said Kathie Boettrich, local Democratic Party chairman in Washington, D.C., who worked to foster grassroots support for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in last year's primary.
But the Bush team and the GOP overall have been savvy about fostering 20- and 30-something voters as their new "investor class," as well as mobilizing loyal evangelical youth, Boettrich said.
"They have to — because these students are voting," she said.
Pollsters say that the 18- to 30-year-old demographic counted for 17 percent of the total electorate in 2004 — the same as 2000. But since turnout overall was higher this year, so was the youth vote. Bush lost the group to Sen. John Kerry 45-54 percent.
But Bush's attempt to change the face of Social Security by offering American workers the chance to invest a percentage of their payroll taxes in private accounts has emphasized the benefits to young voters.
"We will make the system a better deal for younger workers by allowing them to save some of their payroll taxes in voluntary personal retirement accounts, a nest egg they can call their own, which government can never take away," the president said in a recent radio address.
“I think the White House is talking to them directly and I think it’s having an effect,” said Riemer. “I think it’s becoming a hot topic on college campuses. That’s what happens when the president puts something this big on his agenda — young people respond.”
However, while the Bush team and like-minded Republicans may be selling, not every young American is buying. Polls indicate that younger Americans believe Social Security won't be available to them when they retire but at the same time, they are unsure about whether to privatize some of the program and risk losing some of their promised benefits.
Democrats say that once Americans are hip to how the Bush plan works, they won't support it.
“Once people educate themselves about the real issue of the plan — and we know the plan includes a cut in guaranteed benefits in order to make this privatization scheme happen — younger people are opposed to it,” said Brian Richardson, 25, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee youth outreach program.
“We don’t want this president cutting our benefits,” he added.
Sheri Annis, a new mom and Republican media strategist, said she is confident that younger workers will see the benefits of personal investment, particularly when questions arise about whether benefits will be cut anyway in 40 years, when the program is expected to go bankrupt.
“This generation is more receptive to the president’s message,” she said. “We’re also finding that younger voters aren’t necessarily the knee-jerk liberals as many other generations of young people have been in the past.”
Riemer’s Rock the Vote is working with AARP (search), the nation's largest seniors association, in opposition to the Bush plan. But, Riemer acknowledged that he doesn't know whether young workers will back the personal accounts plan.
“Where they’re going to come down on this I don’t know,” he said.
Clearly the Social Security issue is not the only way Bush is trying to woo the 18-to-30 crowd to the GOP, say political observers. Since his election in 2000, particularly after his handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush has cemented some clear loyalties among this group, political analysts say, which is faced personally with the continual prospect of going to war.
“Many of us feel that we pin our hopes on him right now for our children and we are probably looking more long-term than previous generations,” said Annis.
Boettrich said she was surprised to see "that Republicans had made some successful connections with young voters" during the presidential campaign. "There were a number of them who were excited about Bush's Social Security plan."
But so far, enthusiasm for Bush and Republicans, particularly on college campuses today, has yet to translate into numerical support for his Social Security plan.
This gap might be hard to bust, but Bush can also appeal to younger voters on issues like increased Pell Grants for college tuition, federal HIV/AIDS research and homeownership opportunities.
"I don't think [the Social Security plan] is buying over all of the young people because there are so many issues that they disagree with him over," said Boettrich. "But there is certainly a connection."