WASHINGTON -- In the 1992 presidential campaign, a saxophone-blowing, star-shaded Bill Clinton managed to rouse a burst of political interest among the voters of Generation X, until then indelibly associated with apathy and alienation.
The attention Candidate Clinton paid to young people and to the issues of youth -- his pioneering visits to MTV and Arsenio, the Clinton-Gore cross-country bus trek -- helped him garner 44 percent of the youth vote, making young people Mr. Clinton's second-largest voting bloc, after the 60-and-up crowd.
With the 1996 election approaching, the question many are asking now is: Can Mr. Clinton, Bob Dole, or anyone else, inspire the young masses again?
The question is not a trivial one. Given the group's size, young voters have the potential to sway the election. Although hard figures aren't available (many localities do not report a voter's age), analysts estimate that the under-30 voter could make up as much as 18 percent of the electorate in November, compared with 15 percent in 1992, and might be a critical factor in states like California, Oregon, Michigan and Ohio.
Yet surprisingly, the campaigns have not yet made concerted efforts to reach out and galvanize the youth vote.
"They're up for grabs," said Bob Beckel, a Democratic political analyst who managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign. "Here's a group that by all accounts is intensely worried about the future. But no one has grabbed them. Nobody's turned them on."
The surge in young registrants is due in part to the National Voter Registration Act -- the "Motor Voter Law." Under the law, voters can register when they get a driver's license or apply for government services. Motor Voter has registered 11 million Americans, about 40 percent of whom are under the age of 30, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
But the question about young people -- possibly the reason why campaigns have not courted them aggressively -- is still, Will they vote? Traditionally, the youth vote has been unreliable, and recent local elections have found motor voters less likely to visit the polls than those who register by conventional means.
Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, puts the question somewhate differently: "There's certainly been a registration boost. But the question isn't, 'Are they going to vote?' It's, 'Why should they?' There's more stress and more cynicism and more fragmentation with this generation than with any other. They watch too much TV and read too little, and their negative feelings about government are constantly reinforced by the press."
Before the 1992 election, voting rates among eligible youths had declined with every election since 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote. The 50 percent of eligible young people who voted in 1972 fell to 37 percent by 1988.
But the 1992 presidential election was an exception. More young voters -- 44 percent of 18-to-29-year olds -- cast ballots than in the previous 20 years. (Overall turnout was 55 percent.) But youth participation plummeted again in 1994, when not even a third of eligible young voters cast ballots.
For their part, young people say that what keeps them out of the polling places is neither laziness nor apathy but lack of relevance.
Too much backbiting, says Darren Wechsler, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, and too much rhetoric that sidesteps issues most vital to him: the environment, education and crime, for example.
Several groups have sprung up to try to rouse indifferent young adults like Mr. Wechsler. Youth Vote '96, a brigade of youth and voting-advocacy groups, has a highly ambitious goal: to motivate half of eligible young people to vote in November. Unfazed by the political lethargy of her contemporaries, Therese Heliczer, the group's director, is optimistic.
"We turned out in record numbers in '92, and we'll turn out in record numbers again," she says, noting that 1996 marks the 25th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which granted 18-year-olds the right to vote. "We're way ahead of the game this election, letting the campaigns know early what's on the youth agenda."
But are the campaigns listening? The presidential aspirants have made some efforts to reach youths. For the first time ever, candidates have taken their campaigns onto the Internet -- a hub for the under-30 crowd.
And during the primaries, each delivered the standard college campus stump speech, replete with "if elected" promises. But none of the aspirants has yet made a wholehearted effort to address the issues polls show are dear to the hearts of young voters of all political stripes: job opportunities, the preservation of natural resources, college financial aid, crime and drug problems, a balanced budget and even the future of Social Security.
The Midwestern conservatism of Sen. Bob Dole, bred in an era of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, contrasts with a generation weaned on grunge and rap. But Mr. Dole, who sat for a much-ballyhood interview on MTV (billed as "Bob Dole Raw"), has dismissed the notion that his age renders him out of touch with youth. "It's not the age of the man," he has said. "It's the man for the age."
But exit polls taken during primary season showed a wide age gap between Mr. Dole's supporters and those of other candidates. And a recent Gallup survey conducted for CNN/USA Today found that when asked for whom they would vote in a Clinton-Dole race, 62 percent of 18- to -29-year-olds favored Mr. Clinton, compared with 34 percent for Mr. Dole. In a hypothetical three-way race with Ross Perot, who received 23 percent of the youth vote in 1992, the poll showed 56 percent for Mr. Clinton, 23 percent Mr. Dole and 20 percent for Mr. Perot.
Even so, his campaign insists that Mr. Dole's popularity with young people is steady and rising.
"We're increasingly seeing a greater number of young people falling in with the Dole campaign," says Christina Martin, a spokeswoman. "They're choosing good, solid leadership and a proven track record over slick slogans."
Asked what the Dole campaign had done to try to attract young voters, Ms. Martin says he "is addressing the economic and job fears of this generation. They've been getting the Dole message MTV, the Internet, and on college campuses."
Another GOP contender, Patrick J. Buchanan, focused his entire primary campaign on economic anxieties, which might ring true for a generation burdened by a disproportionately high jobless rate -- 11.3 percent for workers 25 and under, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Buchanan allies concede that many of the young supporters who heed his economic message are turned off by his hard-line stance on social issues and his criticism of environmental protection, which he denounces for putting natural resources ahead of people.
"Some of his young supporters differ from him on social issues," says K. B. Forbes, a spokesman. "Yet they know he'll fight for the most important issue.
"No one else has bothered to address the economic insecurity young people face," he said. "It's the biggest concern, even for college graduates and those emerging with professional degrees.
The Clinton/Gore '96 campaign, which acknowledges that Generation X was a key element of its strategy in 1992, has yet to move into gear this time. But since his January State of the Union Address, Mr. Clinton -- who dubbed himself "the comeback kid" in 1992 -- is positioning himself as the defender of education, the environment and reproductive rights, while painting Republicans as extremists.
How young people will react to these overtures is difficult to predict. Random interviews of young people reveal political attitudes ranging from half-hearted to slack.
Mike Martin, a 25-year-old assistant manager at Horizon Cycles in Baltimore, complains that "while the candidates try to out-conservative each other, the issues important to young people go ignored, even as the votes of smaller special-interest groups are pursued."
If the candidates want to win the loyalty of young voters, Mr. Martin suggests, "they should forget the family values thing" and "stick to an agenda of problems they could actually help solve."
Other twentysomethings complain that in the absence of a compelling independent presidential candidate or someone new to the presidential scene, like Colin L. Powell, they don't know for whom -- or whether -- they will vote.
"I'm really not into the election," says Heidi Angel, 26, an accountant from Severna Park. "I'm a Democrat, and I usually look to that candidate. But Clinton hasn't lived up to all my expectations, and nobody grabs me in the Republican Party. Their platform seems so extreme."
"Twenty years ago," notes James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, "young people were full of romance about what the government could solve. But the romance is gone. This is a very paranoid, very self-interested generation, really hustling to carve out a piece of the American dream for themselves."
Jeff Brodsky, 22, a pollster, says the Republicans have limited appeal among young audiences. And Mr. Clinton hasn't done enough campaigning, he says.
"When they visit colleges, [candidates] invite the press and deliver their stump speeches over and over," he says. "It turns students off. They should leave the cameras and the press behind sit down with students and ask them what they think."
If the campaigns continue to ignore young voters, he suggests, " you'll find more young people in the library or hitting the bars than hitting the voting booths."
Kerry A. White is a contributing writer who works in The Sun's Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 4/28/96