MANCHESTER, N.H. — It has the feel and look of a transformative moment, this tidal wave of young voters buoying the disparate campaigns of Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.
The shouts and wild applause, and willingness to knock on doors and work on telephone banks late in the evening transformed the Iowa caucuses.
Even those working for politicians unlikely to draw power from this surge say the youth vote could do the same on Tuesday in New Hampshire. At Dartmouth, which is back in session, professors predicted a 60 percent turnout on the campus in Hanover, a percentage that would far exceed previous primaries.
In Iowa, young voters came out in strength, as did their elders. Fifty-seven percent of voters ages 17 to 24 said Mr. Obama was their first choice, compared with 14 percent for John Edwards and 10 percent for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Far fewer young people voted in the Republican caucuses, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas scored highest, drawing well with evangelical youth.
Mr. McCain’s persona as a war hero who rarely minds his lip scores well on campuses in New Hampshire.
Even those transfixed by this wave caution against proclaiming the primaries as a coming of age for a new generation of young activists and voters.
Political pied pipers often prove ephemeral. Mr. Obama’s support among a focus group at Dartmouth sagged noticeably after students watched him debate more veteran Democrats.
Over the long run, young voters rarely vote in percentages as high as older voters. And many laboring here hail from out of state and cannot vote here.
“The mass mobilization and excitement this year is tremendous,” said Joseph Bafumi, a professor of government at Dartmouth. “It gives a campaign a feeling of vitality and energy. But young people are famously transient and not yet settled.”
Gaby Gottlob, 19, a student at the University of Vermont, said not all students were so engaged.
“I know a lot of people that are like: ‘Oh, the primary? I haven’t registered yet,’” Ms. Gottlob said.
Every candidate turns to the tools of the youth culture, a Facebook, YouTube and blogging whirl. But some go much further. Mr. Obama has spoken on college campuses for months, acquiring a vast database of potential volunteers.
Former President Bill Clinton has done the same as his wife’s surrogate. Mr. McCain rarely has a rally or forum in which he fails to hand a microphone to a young person.
No candidate is more aware of the tonic appeal of the youth vote, and more intent on capturing its power than Mr. Obama is. His campaign has the trappings of a youth crusade, an impression he emphasizes by having aides place young people behind him on stage.
Few candidates of recent vintage approached Mr. Obama’s capture of more than half the youth vote in Iowa. In 2004, Howard Dean summoned “net rooters” and “alt rockers.” But in the end, Senator John Kerry received 37 percent of the 18-to-24 vote to Mr. Dean’s 23 percent, according to a poll by Edison/Mitofsky.
Mr. Obama challenges young people daily, urging them to prove pundits wrong by turning out in vast numbers. Booming applause greets his words.
“It would be such a shame after seeing the great turnout in Iowa if we weren’t working as hard as we could to make sure that story continues, because I think that was the biggest story out of Iowa,” Mr. Obama told an audience on Monday. “That transcends any individual candidate.”
The precise alchemy of this attraction is uncertain, as often is true in politics. It owes perhaps to Mr. Obama’s youthful look and multicultural persona, his soaring words and a message tinged with liberal politics and talk of uniting partisans.
“It’s not something he’s doing.” Professor Bafumi said. “It’s something he’s being.”
James Nance, 19, a student at George Mason, traveled across New Hampshire as a political tourist watching candidates. Only Mr. Obama spoke directly to his concerns.
“Kids are the best at telling who’s a liar, who’s phony,” Mr. Nance said. “He really inspires me to stand up and fight. There’s something different about him, you know.”
Mr. Obama’s rivals have not conceded the youth vote. Chelsea Clinton has accompanied her mother, Mrs. Clinton, everywhere on the campaign trail of late. She worked on telephone banks for 30 minutes on Monday.
The campaign made sure to let cameras follow her as she strolled the streets of Portsmouth, even convincing a wavering young woman at a diner to vote for her mother.
Mrs. Clinton’s rallies attract young people, although in nothing like the numbers and passion for Mr. Obama. She has tried to defuse that strength by hitting at his weakness. Her campaign placed a billboard in Hanover, with one word, “Ready.”
Mr. Edwards draws relatively few young people to his events, notwithstanding his youthful looks and energetic style. His theme of a middle class betrayed by a corporate elite appears not to resonate with younger voters. Tom Murray, 20, a political science major from Long Island, hears in Mr. Edwards’s message a poetic tale. But Mr. Murray sees few young people at rallies.
“It’s mostly older people,” he said. “I’m not sure why.”
In the Republican ranks, Mr. McCain, 71, is a curious bookend to Mr. Obama. He is the oldest candidate in either party besides Ron Paul, another Republican, who is 72. Yet he draws hundreds of young people at some events.
Mr. McCain drew many hundreds when he spoke at Dartmouth, a number exceeded only by the 2,000 students who showed up for Mr. Obama.
“He is seen as Washington but not in it,” said Ronald G. Shaiko, an associate director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth who works with focus groups. “They think he’ll upset the apple cart.”
Mr. McCain admits to admiring Mr. Obama’s appeal as a “wonderful thing” and has taken to borrowing a line or three. He has been channeling Mr. Obama, calling on Americans to “serve a cause greater than their self-interest,” a theme from his campaign in 2000.
At forums, he may hand the microphone to a young man with ONE, a group dedicated to eradicating what it calls “stupid poverty” and disease. The group has more than 17,000 members in New Hampshire.
At Dartmouth, Emily Goodell, 18, sat astride a strange fence, contemplating a vote for Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama.
“It is kind of a strange thing since they have different views on many of the issues,” Ms. Goodell said. “They come across as genuine. I trust them.”
Nearly as striking is the absence of young people on the trail traveled by Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani. Mr. Romney visited Dartmouth, but the earth did not shake.
“He went straight to the medical school,” Professor Shaiko said. “He wanted to talk to adults. He has no presence here.”
Still, the youth vote has an uncertain mojo. For the moment, Mr. Obama is like catnip for many people younger than 30. Less certain is if his “it moment” will be sustained.
The results of the Rockefeller Center focus group before the Democratic debate in September at Dartmouth may be instructive. Mr. Obama’s stock dropped after he stood shoulder to shoulder with more experienced rivals.
“His talking about his work in the state legislature while another candidate is talking about negotiating with the North Koreans was a turnoff,” Professor Shaiko said. “They found him coming up short on experience.”
Nice to hear young people worrying about experience, as the author of this piece takes two opportunities to mention. The Baltimore Sun article,
takes another look.