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Health Care Is One Thing, but What About That Lyrics Crusade?

College students will highlight issues they find important when Gore visits University of Michigan. But will they actually vote?

September 26, 2000|MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — They describe this leafy college town as "six square miles surrounded by reality," so it would seem characteristic of Ann Arbor that its young residents see one presidential campaign while the candidates wage another.

In the campaign that students of the University of Michigan care about, the top issues include abortion, affirmative action, capital punishment, education, gun control--even the freedom to buy foulmouthed music.

But Social Security, a cornerstone issue of presidential rivals Al Gore and George W. Bush, is for these students' grandparents. And health care? Well, as one 21-year-old townie put it: "I'm healthy."

"An 18- to 24-year-old takes great pride in that they're 18 to 24, and they don't have to deal with 65-plus issues," said Mike Spahn, the editor of the Michigan Daily.

Gore to Take Part in On-Campus Forum

When Democrat Gore visits Ann Arbor today for an on-campus forum televised by MTV, there is a good chance he will be asked about the crusade that he and his wife, Tipper, led against explicit songs in the '80s. "What do you have against Metallica?" is not a pressing question when the vice president visits senior centers and elementary schools.

Michigan senior Jon Cassady is among those tracing his feelings about Gore back to the anti-smut crusade. "I've never been a big fan of Gore," he said. Cassady, 21, doesn't support everything the entertainment industry produces but worries about censorship. "It's one of my biggest fears of anything."

Lauren Male also has a fear: that "old-boy" Republican Bush is too conservative for today's America. The onetime Chi Omega rush chairwoman from Miami admits she does not know much about the Texas governor's or Gore's policies, but she does know Bush opposes unrestricted abortion rights. "I don't think that's appropriate for the times."

When Male and Cassady vote--she for Gore, he for Bush--they will be going against the odds for those their age. About half of all voters went to the polls in the 1996 presidential election, but the 18-24 age group had just a 32% turnout. This November, according to a survey released Monday by MTV and the Kaiser Family Foundation, fewer than half of eligible voters under 25 are certain they will vote, versus 64% of all adults.

Still, by some measures, so-called Generation Y is no more apathetic than the rest of America. Overall, studies have shown, they volunteer in their communities in unprecedented numbers. The MTV-Kaiser poll found that they are more concerned than older voters about crime-related issues and civil rights.

"It's not that they're disengaged with the issues," Kaiser foundation Vice President Vicky Rideout said. "They have strong opinions on issues that are being debated in this campaign. But they don't see a link between them casting a vote and anything happening on those issues."

The candidates know that this election won't hinge on the historically minimal college-age vote, so they focus on more reliable voter blocs. When Bush and Gore propose ways to make college more affordable, for example, their pitch is aimed toward parents saving for the future.

"When I watched the convention, I felt moved because in a few years I will have a family," said 25-year-old Susan McLeary, who says she'll leave the country if Gore loses. "But I think someone who's 21 and partying a lot and not thinking about their future might feel a little alienated."

The campaign's issue gap was most evident on Labor Day, said John Dervin, political director of Youth Vote 2000, a nonpartisan coalition that promotes civic participation. Then, at the fall campaign's kickoff, Bush talked about K-12 education and Gore focused on prescription drug care for children and the elderly.

"Here we are at the start of the political campaign season and where were [the issues of] 18- to 30-year-olds?" wondered Dervin, himself 26. "Nowhere to be found."

Dervin's group and other proponents of youth participation in politics say candidates are squandering an opportunity.

"The way to get young people involved? It's not rocket science at all," Dervin said. "You just have to go to where young people are and answer their questions."

Gore will do that today when he visits Ann Arbor. His appearance on campus--and on MTV--is the most direct overture Gore himself has made to college-age students. His daughters Karenna and Kristin have so far been his ambassadors to Generations X and Y. Bush relied on his nephew, George P. Bush, until he left the campaign in August for law school.

Both campaigns have youth coordinators who marshal networks of foot soldiers to paper dorms with campaign fliers, register voters and write commentaries for their campus newspapers.

But such outreach is probably lost on the non-college crowd. Of America's 26.5 million 18- to 24-year-olds--about 10 million of whom are enrolled in college now--those who have never been on campus are only half as likely to vote as those who have.

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