Young Voters Could Be the Deciding Factor in Florida

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Orlando Sentinel / MCT / Landov

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama greets cheering supporters as he takes the stage at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Throughout its rocky rise to becoming the nation's most crucial swing state, Florida has had one electoral constant: the battle for its prized 27 votes has centered on its politically motivated retirees and condo commandos. In fact, if there is any key state where Barack Obama's focus on the youth vote wouldn't seem to be much of an asset, it's Florida, where discussions of Social Security and Medicare have traditionally trumped all other issues. But the once easily pigeonholed demographics in the Sunshine State are changing, and many pundits say the 30-and-under crowd could turn out to be the decisive factor in this year's closely contested race.

That's about the last thing the McCain campaign needs to hear right now. Florida, run by a Republican Governor and legislature, was supposed to be the Arizona senator's to lose. But while polls through September showed him and Obama in a dead heat, Obama seems to be pulling away as the nation's economic crisis worsens. Four polls released last week show Obama not only leading —one, by Quinnipiac University, has him up by as much as eight points — but breaking the 50% barrier for the first time.

But are young people really a factor in that surge? There is no denying that the state is getting younger as a whole. In the 1990s, population growth for Floridians aged 19 and under finally surpassed that of Floridians 65 and older — and Floridians born in 1990 came of voting age this year. A recent Miami Herald poll has Obama well ahead of McCain among voters aged 18 to 34, 52% to 42%. "I'm betting young voters will make a big difference this time," says University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher. "The campaign in Florida is playing out as much on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as it is on television."

The surge in voter registration in Florida also suggests younger people are becoming more politically involved. Through August, Florida had 10.6 million registered voters. That includes almost 450,000 who were added to the state's rolls this year — and among those, 252,000 registered as Democrats, while fewer than 100,000 are Republicans. No age breakdown is available, but election experts agree a majority of those new voters are under age 30. Zach Moller, a senior economics major and president of the University of Florida Democrats, says 2,500 UF students registered on campus on the first day of classes last month; that number has doubled since then and he expects it to have doubled again by the state's Oct. 6 deadline. The story is the same on other Florida campuses like the University of Central Florida, Florida State University and the University of Miami.

One reason for this heightened interest is the prevalence of issues that really engage younger voters, not just the Iraq War but eco-debates like whether or not to permit oil-drilling off Florida's coast. Bryan Griffin, 20, a junior classics/political science major and head of UF's Republicans, suggests young Floridians have begun to shift their focus from the beach to the ballot box. "There's a lessening of political apathy,"he says. "Florida kids have a lot of [recreational]distractions, but we're waking up now to the realization that we can make a difference in this state."

The deepening financial mess is another wake-up call, says Scher. It has rained down home foreclosures and other calamities on Florida, slapping the slack-jawed face of a youth cohort that until now had never experienced a downturn. During the extended Florida boom of the past two decades, says Scher, "young people here grew up thinking this state was always flush, always on the upswing. Now there's a sense that something is burning here." Moller says he's seeing more Florida college seniors moving toward the Democrats as a result. "I feel like my dad did when he graduated in 1976," during another period of economic malaise, he says. "We feel fairly sure we won't be able to get a job out of college."

Either way, Justin York, 20, a junior pre-law student and president of the College Republicans at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, says both parties need to acknowledge that it's not just the elderly migrating to Florida anymore. "More and more you see people opting to go to college in Florida, or they move here right after graduating from college in a state like Pennsylvania," says York. "Whichever party wins them now will win this state in the future."

(View a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)

(See TIME's pictures of the week here.)

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