Young Democrats came out in far greater numbers than their GOP counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire. But according to Republicans in conservative South Carolina, that trend could change as soon as Saturday.
“I think you will have a lot of young Republicans come out” to vote in South Carolina’s primary, said Tradd Anderson, a senior at Clemson University in South Carolina, who is Fred Thompson’s state coordinator for students.
“From what I feel on the ground is that you have a ton of college students working on all the Republican campaigns, maybe because South Carolina is such a Republican state.”
So far, turnout among both young Democrats and young Republicans has been higher than in previous years. But to compete with the young Democrats’ turnout, young Republicans have much ground to make up. While 52,580 Iowa caucus-goers under 30 were Democrats, only 12,650 young Republicans caucused.
“Let's get to a Republican state and see what the youth vote turnout is like there,” said Jessica Colon, chair of the Young Republican National Federation.
More young Republicans voted in Michigan on Tuesday than Democrats, perhaps because the uncontested Democratic primary had lower turnout overall. But voters under 30 continued to make up a higher percentage of the Democratic electorate, at 17 percent, than among Republicans, at 13 percent.
The participation of young Democrats is rising at a much faster rate than older Democrats, and the same is not true of young Republicans.
Youth vote experts say that the chief reason for the turnout discrepancy so far is that the Democratic candidates and mobilization groups have put more emphasis on reaching out to young voters.
“The Democrats have just been doing more aggressive outreach so far,” said Ian Rowe, Vice President of strategic partnerships at MTV. “Obama's strategy in Iowa and New Hampshire contributed to young people coming out.”
“One of the major problems we’ve had in Iowa and New Hampshire is that the candidates on the Democratic side spent more time and money on reaching out to young voters because in recent years they’ve made up a larger proportion of voters in their primaries,” said Ethan Eilon, executive director of College Republicans.
And some Republicans argue that the turnout gap is largely due to the Democrats’ more hotly contested races in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“In Iowa, Republicans were outspent in TV advertising 2-1,” Colon pointed out.
But both Eilon and Colon insist young Republican turnout will be higher in South Carolina, where young voters have expressed enthusiasm about their party’s candidates. And, indeed, young Republicans on the ground expressed confidence that their peers would show up to vote.
“I believe in South Carolina the young voter turnout won't be as lopsided as we witnessed in Iowa and New Hampshire,” John Anderson, a student at Furman University said via email.
“Many of the Republican candidates aren't too motivating for young people, e.g. Mitt Romney,” Andersen wrote.
But, he added, Mike Huckabee “has a good chance of doing well here in SC and his use of the Chuck Norris endorsement and the web have greatly helped spread his message among the college crowd.”
Taylor Hall, executive director of the South Carolina College Republicans and a junior at Furman University in South Carolina, said that John McCain also has an appeal to students. “McCain and Huckabee are roughly tied [in the lead among Republicans on campus],” Hall, who supports McCain, said.
“Huckabee has touched a lot of young evangelicals. McCain’s independent spirit and unwillingness to pander has attracted a lot of young people.”
Rowe points out that like some of the Democrats, John McCain has been effective in reaching out to young voters directly.
“Wth McCain and the Democrats, they're talking about issues that are more relevant to young people,” he said. “McCain is one of the few Republicans that acknowledge the environment and global warming is an issue.”
Meanwhile, 22-year-old David Clarke Stevens, who occasionally volunteers for Mitt Romney in South Carolina, says that he sees equal enthusiasm among his Republican and Democratic friends.
Nevertheless, logistics in South Carolina Saturday could hamper turnout.
South Carolina has election laws that are much less amenable to youth voting than Iowa or New Hampshire. There is no same-day registration, for example, which many young people took advantage of in Iowa and New Hampshire.
So, college students registered in their parent’s district will have to vote absentee if they are away at school, or go home to vote, a burden that may discourage many of them.
And out-of-state students like Steven Ulrich, a junior at Bob Jones University, who grew up in North Carolina and is still registered there, will not be able vote in South Carolina at all, though he says he would if he could.
Likewise, Hall himself cannot vote, even though he will be working the polls all day, because he is originally from Tennessee.
“I see passion on both [parties’] sides,” Anderson said. “What I'm afraid is we have to see if it translates to votes for either side.”
While Republicans may shrink the gap in youth turnout in South Carolina because of the state's ideological makeup, young Republicans admit that their party is not as focused on young people nationally. And some fear there may be a price to pay in November.
“Republicans must focus on the youth vote,” Colon said. “I’ve been asking them to forever. If [the recent spike in turnout] isn’t proof that the youth vote is going to be important in this election, I don’t know what they’re looking for.”