The refrain is the same every four years: Young voters are destined to make a difference in the presidential election.
It didn’t happen in 2000, and while turnout among voters between 18 and 24 did rise in 2004 after three decades of steady decline, it wasn’t enough to prevent George W. Bush from winning a second term.
But, this year, there’s evidence that the perennial optimism of youth-vote organizers may finally prove well founded. Vermont and other states report that record numbers of young adults are registering to vote for the first time. Credited with helping Barack Obama win the Democratic nomination, they are now poised to crowd polling places around the country on November 4.
But what about the Vermont governor’s race? Will a heavy turnout of first-time voters help Obama’s fellow Democrat, Gaye Symington? Or will students and other young adults contribute to an upset by independent Anthony Pollina, who styles himself Obama’s political soul mate? Or could it be, as one political scientist predicts, that Republican Gov. James Douglas will win the largest share of Vermont’s youth vote?
At least 22,000 voters had been added to the Vermont rolls as of early October, according to Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz. She described that as “a tremendous number — much higher than what we usually see.”
Statistics on the ages of the newly registered aren’t yet available, but Markowitz estimated that a third or more of them are under 25. She said turnout for the November 4 election could rival the modern-times record of nearly 70 percent set in 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president and Democrat Howard Dean won by a landslide in his first race for governor.
But even if an army of young Vermonters does troop to the polls to support Obama, many of them may not vote at all in the governor’s race, said political scientist professor Eric Davis, who retired last year from Middlebury College.
Based on post-election interviews in 2004, Davis concluded that as many as half of the Middlebury students registered to vote in Vermont did not take part in that year’s gubernatorial contest. Most of the abstainers indicated they didn’t know enough about the candidates for governor to choose one over the others, Davis says.
The same pattern could emerge this year among students who have moved from other states to attend school in Vermont. Andrew Knapp, a St. Michael’s College student from the Boston area, could prove typical. The newly registered 21-year-old said he plans to vote in the presidential election but “probably won’t vote for someone for governor because I’m not familiar with who’s running.”
Ashley Wheeler, Miss Vermont 2008, has found that attitude widespread among students taking part in the voter-signup drives she has helped organize on campuses around the state. “There isn’t nearly as much awareness about the governor’s race” as about the presidential contest among students, Wheeler said.
But young Vermont voters who grew up in the state may be just as likely to vote for governor as for president. Tabare Gowan, a 21-year-old Burlington High School  grad now attending Harvard, said he’ll “definitely” choose a candidate for governor, though he’s not yet sure which one that will be. “It’s important to learn about the candidates and state issues,” Gowan said.
Lyndsey Hobart, a 20-year-old Community College of Vermont  student and Richmond resident, is also planning to vote for governor. “I’m for Pollina because I agree with him on most things,” she said. “I like Symington, too, but I’m not as confident that she can handle the job.”
That’s a view Pollina thinks will be widely held among young voters. He notes that he has campaigned on several campuses and attracted “a core group of volunteers” under age 25. “A lot of people organizing for Obama are supportive of me,” Pollina, 56, adds. “They see that my policies are similar to his.”
Symington, 54, predicts she’ll win most of the youth vote because of her emphasis on “creating good jobs and building a strong Vermont for the future.” The Democrat is also yoking her campaign tightly to Obama’s. “More and more people are understanding that as Obama moves into the presidency, he’ll need partners in statehouses and in Congress,” Symington said.
Douglas, the 57-year-old incumbent, did not respond to requests for an interview. But Dave Coriell, the Douglas campaign’s director of operations, said he’s “confident in the message Gov. Douglas has about creating jobs in reaching out to young voters.” Coriell, a 25-year-old Middlebury College alum from Killington, noted that Douglas received the same 59 percent share of the total Vermont vote in 2004 as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry did.
Political scientist Davis believes young Vermonters will vote for Douglas in roughly the same proportions as do their elders, despite the state’s likely landslide for Obama. He offered the hypothetical example of a twentysomething Obama supporter in the Northeast Kingdom.
“That voter will probably go for Douglas just like his parents,” Davis said. “And that’s something you’re probably going to see with many young voters all over the state.”