- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

Colin Saltry and Joey Daniel of Scranton, Pa., thought it was important enough to skip a high-school gym class Monday morning and finesse their way into a campaign event featuring Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and presidential candidate, wolfing down pancakes.

But they paid a price: a one-day suspension.

A group of Haverford College students also played hooky last week to attend a campaign rally for Mr. Obama’s Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodam Clinton of New York. Instead, she thanked them “for caring enough to skip class.”

Meanwhile, a group of young people in Montgomery County, including students as young as 15, also skipped classes. They, however, wanted to throw back a few brews for breakfast on a balmy spring day.

We could debate which set of students received — or face — the appropriate punishment. After all, police handed some of the local truants citations for breaking the law.

Still, I’d like to see the local truants become as productive and involved in the civic process as the Pennsylvania groups. How do we engage them so they are not just hanging out and getting into trouble? And once you get young people to pay attention and participate in the political process, how do you keep them interested?

First of all, we shouldn’t turn them off with pettiness or backroom party machinations. Surely, the Scranton high school must follow attendance rules. But was a day’s suspension for their youthful curiosity useful? Cut them some slack; they didn’t slink off to an underage binge party. If anything, the Pennsylvania high-school students should have been given in-school detention. Better yet, they could have been given a platform to tell their classmates about the political experience during which Mr. Obama wrote a note asking that they be excused. Sometimes real-life experiences best the ones read from books.

Whether you support Mr. Obama or not, whether he is successful in his bid for the presidency or not, the real hope for the legacy of his historic campaign lies in its ability to bring new and young voters to the process.

“I think when you look at Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia, North Carolina — most of the new voters are between 18 and 28, and Obama’s getting the lion’s share,” said Michael Fauntroy, a political policy professor at George Mason University. “Some of that enthusiasm is about race, and some of that is the tremendous appeal he has to younger voters regardless of race. He’s the new shiny thing.”

Mr. Fauntroy emphasizes that Mr. Obama “won nearly two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-old voters and, in what has to be an encouraging sign going forward, he also won a big majority of newly registered voters.”

Although Mr. Fauntroy has voiced concerns about Mr. Obama’s long-term electability, the candidate’s “ability to expand the electorate is amazing and presents a great base going into the general election, should he get that far.”

If Mr. Obama doesn’t get that far, what will be the impact on those young and new voters, especially if they “sense some shaky stuff going on,” as Mr. Fauntroy asks. Will the newly engaged continue to be party faithful or drop out? Mr. Fauntroy seems to think the latter.

So does Eric Horton, an American University law and society major, who cast an absentee ballot for the first time in his life in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary.

“The loss [by Mr. Obama], while disappointing, I was expecting [it], especially after his [‘bitter’] comment,” Mr. Horton said yesterday. “But I’m still pretty confident in his lead in pledged delegates. The only question is if the superdelegates stay pledged to Obama or if Hillary convinces them to switch. I’m not a big fan of the whole superdelegates system.”

Mr. Horton, who works part time as a student security guard and has been present at Obama rallies, said “the fervor for him surprised me; his speaking skills enthrall young people.”

If Mrs. Clinton somehow gets the nomination, Mr. Horton predicts “a lot of the youth vote will be disenfranchised, and I am fairly confident that some of the people I know would switch over to [Sen. John] McCain.” He might do so himself. “I have a McCain supporter who has been telling me that the [Democratic] youth will be disenfranchised, and I’m starting to believe him.”

Don’t think the Democratic Party is unaware of its potential youth problem. This voting bloc cannot be discounted so easily anymore. Mr. Fauntroy provides statistics indicating that the number of younger voters actually showing up at the polls has increased for each of the past three election cycles.

“Younger voters have to be watched in the same way as African-American voters,” Mr. Fauntroy said. “If a significant number are deflated by the process, the impact could be to spur them to withdraw from politics, thinking it is ‘just too corrupt’ or ‘can’t be trusted,’ or they may move to a third party.”

Such a scenario would be a great loss for more than just the Democratic Party.

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