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Youth came through with big turnout

AMERICA'S young people were buzzing about the presidential campaign before Election Day. College towns saw sky-high registration numbers, and young adults told pollsters they planned to vote. What happened?

Despite long lines and registration snafus, voters under age 30 clocked the highest turnout percentage since 1972. The good news is that America's young people are more engaged in politics than at any time in two generations. Aging cynics have been quick to blame the kids for a host of political lapses, but the cynics have it wrong.

Start with the numbers. According to professor William Galston at the University of Maryland, at least 20.9 million Americans under 30 voted on Tuesday. That is an increase of 4.6 million voters from 2000. Four years ago, just 42.3 percent of young people voted. This year more than 51.6 percent did.

Young people were especially active in battleground states, with turnout at 64.4 percent of eligible voters. Furthermore, these estimates understate things, because college kids are more likely than other groups (except the military) to vote by absentee ballot. Surveys of college students around the country, done in the weeks before the election, found 42 percent of students planning to vote absentee. Exit polls completely miss these young voters who numbered, this year, close to 3 million.

According to exit polls, Senator John Kerry won the under-30 set with 54 percent of the vote to President Bush's 44 percent. The Democrats lost every other age group. Without young Democrat voters, President Bush would have rolled to victory in Wisconsin and New Hampshire; Iowa and Nevada, too, would have been much bigger wins for the president. In political circles today, Democrats are blaming young Americans for not showing up, and Republicans are chortling over their allegedly low turnout. Nonsense. Rather, both parties should be seeing their future in the eyes of young voters.

Turnout was up among every demographic group this year, thanks to an impressive get-out-the-vote effort by both parties. Young people were the ground troops that visited voters door-to-door and manned phone banks for both parties on Election Day.

Democrats should not take much comfort, though, in the partisanship of the young Americans. According to research by Harvard's Institute of Politics and pollster John Della Volpe, most college students no longer fit neatly along a liberal to conservative continuum. Their support for John Kerry was largely a reaction against President Bush's actions in Iraq, while they judged President Bush to be a stronger leader with a more "authentic" personal style.

Earlier this year, we asked a national random sample of college students their opinions on a range of issues. Using a statistical technique called "cluster analysis," we looked at how answers to one question predicted answers to others. What emerged was clear evidence of two political worldviews among young people. The first worldview, which accounts for 49 percent of college students, fits the old definitions of liberals and conservatives. The second worldview, amounting to 51 percent of students, is neither liberal nor conservative. These young voters base political judgments on religious and moral grounds. They fall into two distinct camps: religious centrists and secular centrists, and neither group is predictably conservative or liberal.Young religious centrists, for example, tend to support universal healthcare and affirmative action, while simultaneously calling for and end to gay marriage. Religious centrists are more likely than their secular counterparts to vote, and both parties will need to court them.There is a new religiosity among America's young people. Their burst of activism in both parties comes from deep convictions about caring for the poor, for their communities, and for families. Community volunteerism is at an all-time high. So is church attendance. While 29 percent of the general public call themselves "born again Christians," fully 35 percent of college students embrace the label. The new battleground of American politics -- with young voters as the ground troops -- will be over how to address the moral idealism of today's youth. Will it be a version of community found in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, or will it be more akin to the Book of Revelations? Among the religious centrists -- those crucial swing voters for both parties -- the very definitions of "politics" and "community" are at stake.

So, yes, the young voters turned out, and they did so as never before. That news alone may frighten the political establishment. Old line partisans of the left and right can no longer ignore these young voters.

David C. King is associate director of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. 

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