Philadelphia — Two weeks before the Republican National Convention is to open here, the news is all about the threatened demonstrations not what will take place inside the hall. Interviewing voters the other afternoon in a middle-class suburb, I found exactly one who expressed an interest in watching the four-day Republican extravaganza a high school history teacher.
The conventions are supposed to be the events that awaken the public to the fact that a presidential election campaign is under way. But it is beginning to dawn on both the George Bush and the Al Gore campaigns and on hundreds of other down-ballot candidates that the challenge this year may lie more in mobilizing hard-core partisans to vote than in persuading the undecided to come aboard.
Of all the recalcitrants, the polls say, young Americans are the hardest to get. In 1996, when slightly less than half the eligible voters turned out, only a third of those between 18 and 24 cast ballots. In the midterm election of 1998, only one out of five young Americans showed up.
Any number of people have tried to figure out why the next generation is not voting and what might be done about it. Particularly vexing are the youths Ellen Shearer and Jack Doppelt called in their book, "Nonvoters: America's No-Shows," the "doers" young people who volunteer for civic projects but shun politics.
Erin Ashwell, a Harvard undergraduate, sent me a copy of a survey she and others did for the Institute of Politics last spring, in which they questioned a random national sample of 800 college students. Like Shearer and Doppelt, the Harvard students found a huge gap 60 percent of the students had been actively involved in community service but only 16 percent had joined a political or issues-related organization and only 7 percent had volunteered or said they planned to volunteer in a political campaign.
Overwhelmingly, they said, community service will do far more to solve the problems facing the country than political engagement.
They share their elders' distrust of government, of politics and especially of the influence of money on candidates. But in all these studies, the young people also complained that the candidates rarely talk to them and when they do, they don't talk straight.
This week, the Aspen Institute will release a report from a task force headed by former Rep. David Skaggs of Colorado that picks up that cue and tries to help the current crop of candidates find ways to motivate what the report calls "the 30 million missing voters."
The Aspen "tool kit for candidates" is remarkably common-sensical: Find where the young people in your constituency gather and meet them on their own turf. Level with them "admit mistakes and (acknowledge you) don't have all the answers." Show the connection between the election and getting action on the things they care about.
One key finding from the 18 focus groups Aspen conducted with a wide variety of young people not just college students is that candidates do not need a separate "youth agenda." Skaggs told me, "As a barely recovered candidate, I shared the assumption that to get into their heads, you almost have to approach them as an alien species. That is wrong." Aspen found the top issues for the youths were much the same as for their parents education, violence, health care.
Another insight from all three of these studies and a survey done last year for the National Association of Secretaries of State: Young people think voting is serious business, and many of them lack confidence in their own ability to do it right.
Many are unfamiliar with voting machines, and don't want to embarrass themselves by having to seek help. Programs like Kids Vote, which bring grade school and high school students to actual voting places for mock elections, help overcome that fear.
But, these studies say, young people often feel they don't know enough to vote. So part of Aspen's tip sheet says, "Make it easy for young adults to find out about the campaign and understand your positions. Web sites and campaign literature should include detailed information on your background, specific issue positions and substantive accomplishments."
All this sounds pretty elementary. But it obviously hasn't been happening. As the Institute of Politics report says, there is a crying need to show young people "that politics is a practical and productive way to effect change, and that it is a noble and honorable form of public service."