- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

Thousands of adoring supporters in the under-30 set turned out to hear him speak. Drawn by his infectious optimism and electrified by the message of hope and change, the youthful crowd interrupted his speeches with bursts of uncontrollable cheers and tremendous applause. The man in the spotlight wasn’t Barack Obama. It was Ronald Reagan.

If this comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t. Long before Mr. Obama began appealing to the elusive youth vote, “The Gipper” attracted thousands of young people to his cause. The historic attendance at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and the anti-communism speeches delivered at Notre Dame University and Moscow State University are just a few examples. The youths’ enthusiasm for Mr. Reagan, entrenched in the substance of his message, not merely a superficial charm, resulted in election-changing votes - allowing him to capture 59 percent of the youth vote in 1984. To put this in perspective, not even Bill Clinton could surpass that margin, even though at 22 years Mr. Reagan’s junior when elected, he took unusual steps to court younger voters, such as blabbering about his underwear on MTV and playing the saxophone on late-night talk shows.

Yet since Mr. Reagan’s term, the Republican Party’s efforts to reach the country’s youngest voters have waned. Mr. Clinton topped both George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole for the national youth vote, while George W. Bush lost it to Al Gore and John Kerry. Currently, John McCain’s prospects seem equally dismal. A CBS/New York Times poll released midsummer reported that 48 percent of voters under age 30 favor Mr. Obama, compared with 36 percent who like Mr. McCain.

That said, Mr. McCain shouldn’t lose hope. He can still attract millennial voters. In fact, his party already shares an intrinsic base of support with the values of Generation Y: a visceral distrust for government intervention. Take music and the Internet, two subjects integral to the lives of young people. In these areas, the last thing they want is the federal government dictating what music they can listen to or which Web pages to view. That’s conservative intuition. And it’s intuition that Mr. McCain can harness and apply to every issue affecting younger voters - from Social Security to student loans to a confiscatory tax system. If young people are suspicious of Uncle Sam legislating particular music preferences into law or setting parameters on Internet browsing, they should be similarly suspicious of government bureaucrats mandating health care plans, socializing student lending and denying personal investment of Social Security. Young people crave choice and services that big government can never provide. The presumptive Republican nominee would score major points among the younger generation by packaging his message in such terms and blasting it out to the social-networking and video-sharing sites.

He even has an established outlet to spread the word: college campuses. What better way to convey the left’s desire to restrict freedom in the name of egalitarianism than to meet young people on their own turf? Mr. Obama knows that college campuses are fertile ground for courting young voters, and he has hosted events at more than 170 campuses thus far. Mr. McCain’s tally is significantly lower, with just over 50 colleges and universities under his belt. This will have to change if Mr. McCain wants a shot at winning the youth vote. And it can. Each school that hosted Mr. Obama would have to allow Mr. McCain a similar platform if they hoped to maintain the allusion of nonpartisanship, and more importantly, to preserve a tax-exempt status.

While the voting preferences of young people didn’t decide the national election in 2000 or 2004, this year could be different. The national youth turnout rate rose from 9 percent in the 2000 primaries to 17 percent in the 2008 primaries, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. In swing states with more youthful populations - including Virginia, Colorado and Nevada - the youth vote could easily play a monumental role.

The left’s grip on young people this election is not fait accompli, and Mr. McCain doesn’t need tawdry gimmicks to attract youth to his side. By appealing to young people’s conservative instincts and generating a point of contact on college campuses, Mr. McCain can ignite a fervor among the youth that could make the difference in this campaign and for years to come.

Jason Mattera is spokesman for Young America’s Foundation.

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