Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Ben Carpenter’s weapons in the battle for the young vote include GOP-themed Frisbees and bottle-opener key chains, and he handed out as many of the freebies as he could at UNLV this week.
The 24-year-old field representative for the College Republicans National Committee arrived on campus Tuesday morning following a 450-mile drive from Carson City. He had spent the night in his sleeping bag in the bed of his green pickup truck on the shoulder of a highway near Pahrump.
By midday Tuesday, as the temperature climbed into the 90s, his dedication was paying off. He had persuaded about 20 students to join the UNLV College Republicans. That’s 20 more potential volunteers for GOP causes, 20 more potential young voters to mobilize on Election Day.
In polls nationwide, young people have consistently favored Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama by large margins over his Republican rival, John McCain. But the competition for young voters’ allegiance is far from over.
And in Nevada more than in most other states, both parties have the potential to turn out greater numbers of young voters than in the previous presidential contest.
In 2004, 49 percent of U.S. citizens aged 18-29 went to the polls, a huge jump over the 40 percent who showed up in 2000, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. But in Nevada, just 43 percent cast ballots, the seventh-lowest turnout among the 50 states and District of Columbia.
The Obama campaign has four full-time paid staffers dedicated to courting young folks — campus organizers at UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno, and young vote directors for Northern and Southern Nevada. To encourage students to sign up friends and family to vote, leaders of UNLV Young Democrats have been giving members envelopes with five voter registration cards inside, said Destiny Farr, 22, the group’s president.
Of young voters in Nevada, 43.6 percent are Democrats and 27.8 percent are Republicans. Nonpartisan voters make up 20.5 percent of young people registered.
“This is a state where the election could easily be won by a few thousand voters,” Obama spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said. “This election could be won or lost on the youth vote.”
As of Monday, Democrats this year had registered 32,874 new Nevada voters ages 18 to 29, more than double what Republicans achieved in the same period. The gain is large considering that the number of young Democrats registered prior to 2008 in the state was 53,835.
On Tuesday, advertisements for an Obama rally and a Young Democrats and Students for Obama meeting were pervasive at the Student Union and other well-trafficked spots.
The only McCain paraphernalia in sight was a bumper sticker on Carpenter’s laptop, prompting the young Republican to admit his party could do more to reach UNLV students. He said at UNR, where he spent much of the past month, the GOP had more tables.
Getting each candidate’s message out on college campuses is important given that among young people, the college-educated are about twice as likely to vote as peers who have attended only high school.
John Della Volpe, polling director for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, says McCain doesn’t have to win the young vote. But if he can whittle down Obama’s margin of victory among young voters to 10 percentage points, the Republican will “likely win the election,” Della Volpe said.
In 2004, the 29-and-under crowd made up about 20 percent of the U.S. population but constituted a smaller share of the electorate. In the presidential race that year, 54 percent of young people cast their ballots for Democrat John Kerry, compared with 45 percent for President George W. Bush, according to exit polls. But Kerry lost every other age group and the election.
This time around, Obama has an edge with the youth vote because, Della Volpe believes, many young people associate McCain with Bush policies.
“I don’t believe that this youth vote is solely about Obama,” he said. “In fact, it’s more accurate to say the youth vote is inspired not necessarily by Obama, but they’re inspired by Bush. I think people get overly concerned about Obama this, Obama that. It’s really about Bush. They’re seeking dramatic change.”
Della Volpe said young people who grew up in a post-Cold War era like a collaborative approach to politics — that abroad, they want the United States to work with other countries to solve the world’s problems, and that at home, they want legislators to work together to solve America’s. As such, America’s newest voters did not respond well to the Bush doctrine, he said.
Emily Kirby, a senior research associate at the Tufts center, said it’s likely young voters nationwide will come out in greater numbers this year than four years ago.
So college campuses are a political battleground.
Carpenter said that shortly after he arrived at UNLV on Tuesday, a Democrat taped two Obama posters on a lamppost next to the Republican’s one-man booth. Carpenter said he gladly took both advertisements down after someone who appeared to be a faculty member said materials could not be posted in the area. The Democrat later replaced one, but “I won the battle on one side,” Carpenter said, laughing.
Across campus, Obama backers were passing out fliers promoting their candidate’s rally at Cashman Field the next day. Eladio Camacho stopped by a blue Obama tent to register to vote for the first time.
“Right now, everyone is voting,” said Camacho, a 20-year-old College of Southern Nevada student. “I’ve heard people say, ‘You’re not registered to vote? What’s wrong with you?’ ”
Despite strongly supporting Obama, Camacho said he isn’t ruling McCain out: “If he came out of the woodwork with something really good, I’d give him my ear.”
The bad news for the McCain camp is that like many of his peers, Camacho said Obama has a stronger presence at UNLV than McCain.
When it comes to exciting young people about his candidacy, Obama has proved savvy. He formally announced his vice presidential pick via text message and hired a Facebook co-founder to help the campaign reach voters on the Web.
As of 5 p.m. Friday, Obama had close to 1.9 million supporters on Facebook to McCain’s half-million. The 47-year-old senator from Illinois had more than five times as many “friends” on MySpace as the 72-year-old senator from Arizona.
And whereas the Obama campaign’s Web site has a section devoted to Students for Obama, the McCain campaign’s site highlights Bikers, Lebanese Americans and Racing Fans for McCain, but not students. Future Leaders for McCain is for folks aged 25-40.
But the Republican candidate has an active youth coalition in Nevada. A Facebook group called UNR Students for McCain has about 100 members, and the number of Facebookers supporting McCain has been growing rapidly.
Brittney Evans, 22, a senior studying political science and a delegate at the Republican National Convention, said 44-year-old Sarah Palin will energize young people in part “because she herself is younger. I think she equals Obama in enthusiasm and excitement.”
Trent Harper, president of UNLV College Republicans, said several people contacted his group about volunteering because they were excited by the addition of Palin to the GOP ticket.
The McCain and Obama campaigns are working closely with student volunteers to turn out young voters.
Representatives from Harper’s and Farr’s groups squared off in a debate Wednesday night in part to spark discussion about campaign issues. They are to partner again to encourage students to participate in early voting at UNLV in late October.
McCainites, along with their Democratic counterparts, have been campaigning at the College of Southern Nevada in addition to UNLV. Both camps could bring well-known supporters to colleges in Las Vegas before November.
But in the end, candidates’ chances of carrying the youth vote might rest less on the efforts of party bigwigs than on the dedication of foot soldiers such as Carpenter, who lives in the Pacific Northwest and drove to Nevada from Spokane, Wash., in late August.
Sitting in the spotty shade of a tree Tuesday, out of bottled water, he watched as crowds of students streamed by, shaking their heads when he exhorted them to join College Republicans. But by the end of the day, his recruiting total had risen to about 30.