- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

Senior angst and anger have been on vivid display as President Obama struggles to sell his health care reform package politically, but Mr. Obama is faring much better with another key demographic: the young.

Younger voters are disproportionately fans of Mr. Obama and his health care plan, polls show. A Pew Research Center study found that 66 percent of adults younger than 30 voted for Mr. Obama. Nearly 70 percent of these voters favor expanding the role of government as a way to solve the nation’s problems, including medical coverage.

That support could be seen in downtown Missoula, Mont., one day this summer at lunchtime, where passers-by were confronted by a group of young people dressed in doctors scrubs and wielding stethoscopes.

They were not looking to check heart rates; they were trying to build support for health care reform.

The White House clearly has discovered this affinity and is trying to capitalize on it. At the University of Maryland last month, Mr. Obama appealed directly for the support of young adults, calling health care reform the “defining struggle of this generation.”

“That journey doesn’t start in Washington, D.C.; it begins in College Park and on college campuses like this,” he added.

A coalition of pro-reform youth groups has labeled itself “Generation H” for health care reform.

Conservative groups opposed to the president’s health care plans also see the trend and say they have struggled to enlist younger voters in their cause.

“It has been hard,” said Kerri Toloczko, policy director for Conservatives for Patients’ Rights. “Young folks just don’t understand because they haven’t had the life experience.”

“We need to explain to them the destructive nature of government,” she added.

As a generation, young adults represent the largest percentage of the population without health insurance in the United States. A recent Gallup Poll found nearly 30 percent of those who say they are uninsured fall into the 18- to 29-year-old range.

Young adults also tend to be more supportive of congressional action on health care reform than those in other age groups.

A Pew survey in July found 61 percent of young people favored spending on health care, compared with 37 percent who favored reducing the deficit. In August, 45 percent of young people said they favor legislation being debated in Congress, while 38 percent opposed it.

Older Americans, by contrast, have been wary of health care reform. Only a third of Americans 65 and older say they favor the legislation being discussed in Congress, and more than half oppose it.

The powerful senior lobby AARP revealed that 60,000 of its members quit between early July and mid-August after the organization announced it was broadly in support of Mr. Obama’s drive to overhaul the nation’s health care system. AARP has resisted endorsing specific bills being considered by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

Andy Shirtliff, a student and waiter, campaigned for health care reform in Montana for years, but the debate became personal this year when he was denied coverage for a pre-existing condition.

He learned that he had early stages of rheumatoid arthritis. When he tried to move his health coverage from his student group plan to a private plan before he graduated from college, he was told his health records gave him an automatic denial. Now he’s taking an extra class at college so he can stay on the University of Montana’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan while he searches for other options.

“Now I really want to help people and I believe this is our moment and we actually have a chance,” he said.

Despite their backing for Mr. Obama, young people were far less likely this summer to attend town-hall meetings, call their congressional representatives or donate money in support of health care.

That comes down to timing and location, said Matthew Singer, founder and chief executive officer of Forward Montana, a political action organization focused on training the next generation of progressive leaders in Montana.

“Who’s free to go to a town-hall meeting at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday? It’s people who have freedom over their schedules; it tends to be professionals who are established or the boss or retirees,” Mr. Singer said.

Campus Progress, an arm of the liberal Center for American Progress, has found that the most reaction comes from people’s stories and shared experiences. In addition to providing information on its Web site and through blogs, it started a journalism project to share health care stories.

Montana Progress also uses humor to reach out to a younger audience. Dressing up in fake surgical smocks, their volunteers approach young people at farmers markets, on college campuses, at popular lunch spots and at sporting events to lobby for health care reform.

It’s not that they don’t take the issue seriously, said Mr. Singer, but this generation relates more to lightheartedness and sarcasm.

“It’s complex and there’s a lot of stuff. We find people open up more with someone who isn’t taking themselves too seriously,” he said. “This is the ‘Daily Show’ generation, the whole bring-some-humor-into-it thing is pretty well accepted by young people.”

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