LONDON – LONDON (AP) — Harry Potter lacked the magic to make Britain's youth care about the country's national election, but the sudden rise of an underdog party leader seen as shaking up politics as usual might do the trick.
When Daniel Radcliffe, the 20-year-old star of the wizard film franchise, said last month he'd be voting for Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, the endorsement did little to rally electoral enthusiasm among Britain's youth. But since the fresh-faced Clegg stole the show in two TV debates this month, more young people have been tuning in — with a little help from Facebook.
"On the day of the (first TV) debate, we grew by 27,000 members in 24 hours," said Ben Stockman, a 30-year-old marketing manager who is behind a Facebook campaign aimed at getting the Liberal Democrats, long Britain's third party, into office.
In the beginning, this election did not look likely to set young pulses racing. Britain's political system has been tarnished by the fallout from the deepest recession in decades, and by a scandal over lawmakers' inflated expenses that confirmed the view of many that politicians are greedy, self-serving and out of touch.
Polls suggest young Britons are even more disillusioned than their elders. A survey this month by pollster ComRes found that only a third of people aged 18 to 22 were certain to vote on May 6, compared to two-thirds for the population as a whole.
"There is a huge disconnect between young people and politicians," said Alex Delaney, chair of trustees of the British Youth Council, a nonprofit group.
So election-watchers have been surprised by a surge in youth interest — and support for the Liberal Democrats — since Clegg's confident performance in a televised leaders' debate on April 15.
Alongside jowly 59-year-old Prime Minister Gordon Brown and youthful-but-upper class Conservative leader David Cameron, 43-year-old Clegg came across as a fresh, reassuringly normal outsider. The Lib Dems got a big poll boost, and a quarter of a million people downloaded voter-registration forms, according to the Electoral Commission, many of them first-time voters.
Clegg also performed strongly in a second debate on Thursday, though most viewers thought the contest was closer the second time around.
Clegg's emergence as a contender has made this a wildly unpredictable and unusually exciting race. Polls show the three main parties just a few points apart — and suddenly attracting hundreds of thousands of young, uncommitted voters is being seen as an electoral holy grail.
The parties hope the key to those voters can be found online. As well as appealing to young voters with promises of more university places and apprenticeships, they are using youth-friendly social media like Facebook and Twitter to galvanize their base, mock the opposition and woo undecided voters.
The Conservatives — the best-funded of the three big parties — have a sophisticated Internet strategy that involves everything from buying up adwords on Google to placing ads on music site Spotify. The others also have a big online presence, and many candidates are using Twitter to communicate. One, Labour's Stuart Maclennan, has already been fired for inappropriate messages on the micro-blogging site.
An even more important factor may be grass roots campaigns by young activists like Stockman who are adept at using social media to harness support.
Stockman's Facebook group — "We Got Rage Against the Machine to (No.) 1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!" — was inspired by last year's viral Internet campaign to give an aging U.S. rock act a chart-topping hit. It has gained more than 140,000 members since it was launched March 30, more than twice as many as any of the parties' official pages.
Stockman says the success is both a sign of momentum and an organizing tool.
"One candidate posted an appeal for help and within 20 minutes five or six people had volunteered to go to work in that constituency," he said.
For younger politicians, social networking is second nature.
"I think my greatest asset has been social networking," said Luke Wilkins, the election's youngest candidate. "I wanted to target younger voters, people who don't go out and vote, and they'll be on Facebook."
An 18-year-old business student, Wilkins is running for Parliament as an independent in Erewash, central England. He saved up money from a weekend job at McDonald's to pay the 500 pound ($750) election deposit. Inspired by President Barack Obama's innovative use of the Net to attract campaign workers and funds, he sought 10 pound donations from 100 people to pay to have leaflets printed.
Despite the parties' enthusiasm for new technology, some say this election could reveal a generational divide that is wider than ever before.
With the economy weakened by recession and debt, young people face higher unemployment than older age groups, along with disappearing pensions and the looming burden of paying for their aging elders. And many still don't think politicians are speaking their language.
"They're all 'Blah blah, stop immigration, stop this and that.' It doesn't help get young people anywhere," said Resa Banjica, a 19-year-old London fashion student.
Many older people, meanwhile, see youth as a threat — a view encouraged by media stories of teenage criminals and drunken louts.
Ben Page of pollster Ipsos Mori said last week that teenage misbehavior was a huge factor in whether people liked where they lived. He told the BBC that surveys sent a stark message: "The more teenagers there are in a local authority, the more miserable people are."
The Youth Council's Delaney is encouraged to see politicians reaching out to young people online, but thinks more needs to be done to bridge the generation gap.
"I'm encouraged to see that the political parties are doing more social media stuff," she said. "But not all young people have broadband and are whizzing around the social networking sites. Traditional ways of engaging with young people are as important as new ones."