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Young wield political power in 2016 presidential election

| Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, 11:15 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Amanda Horn, 21, of downtown Pittsburgh, listens to a speaker at a rally in support of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016 in Market Square.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A group of about 450 people march down Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh in support of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016.
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida autographs a sign on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, after speaking at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.

Young Democrats overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders in the party's first four primaries and caucuses.

For Sanders, the problem is that they aren't turning out in bigger numbers.

Nearly 148,000 Democrats younger than 30 voted in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Seventy-two percent supported Sanders, despite what his poor showing in South Carolina might suggest, exit polls showed. The contests attracted nearly 195,000 young Democrats in 2008, the last time America had an open presidential race without a sitting president or vice president running.

“Optimism is what drove so many young people to the polls in 2008. Obama made a special effort to reach young people with his message of hope and change. There's nothing more appealing to young people than those two things,” said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University.

The optimism faded when “things didn't get changed too much,” Dagnes said. Young people's support of Obama slipped from 66 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2012, exit polls showed.

Meanwhile, turnout by young Republicans in the early primaries and caucuses is soaring. About 144,000 voted in the first four contests, up 50 percent from 2008.

Young Republicans haven't settled on a favorite. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the demographic in Iowa and South Carolina; billionaire businessman Donald Trump won it in New Hampshire, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did in Nevada.

No candidate received support from more than 38 percent of young Republicans.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, attributed the increased turnout on the GOP side largely to Trump.

“Some young people's fear and anger connect to Trump's rhetoric, and I think others are turning out to oppose Trump,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Dagnes said optimism isn't drawing people to the polls this year.

“Trump says, ‘Life sucks, government's bad and everyone is a liar.' ... Bernie doesn't offer any optimism. He's just an alternative to a woman who's not offering a lot of optimism,” Dagnes said.

The Tufts center released a report this month predicting where young voters had the most potential to influence the outcome of presidential races, based on their population, turnout in past elections and other data. Pennsylvania ranked No. 3.

Kawashima-Ginsberg said Pennsylvania has nearly 2 million adults younger than 30, and 15 percent of them are black, the highest turnout group. More than 400,000 people in the age group are enrolled in higher education and are more likely to pay attention to politics and vote in elections. Online registration is available for the first time and could boost the number of voters.

“They are enormously important,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said, pointing to the 2012 election.

Just 36 percent of young voters supported Republican Mitt Romney. Had Romney received support from half of the young voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Florida, it would have been enough to win him the election, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Derek Morris, 23, of Fayette City hopes to rally people around Sanders, who is trailing Hillary Clinton by 21 percentage points in Pennsylvania, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll released last week.

Morris started a Facebook page to generate interest for a Sanders rally in the region.

The page exploded.

Nearly 2,000 people RSVP'd to attend, Morris said. The group Burghers for Bernie helped stage Saturday's event, which included a march of about 1,000 people from Oakland to Downtown and a rally in Market Square.

“I've always been politically conscious, but this is the first time I've been politically active. For Bernie, I really felt obligated to get involved and do something. A lot of young people think this is a time in our history where we really have a chance for some real honest change in our government,” Morris said.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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