Tag Archives: Elections

Election 101: Nine things to know about Rick Santorum and his White House bid

Christian Science Monitor– Election 2012

Click here for original publication.

Rick Santorum’s 16-year career in politics can be charted through his rigorous positions on hot-button issues: welfare, abortion, gay rights. His boldness has made Mr. Santorum, who announced his candidacy for president June 6, a politician that people either really like, or really don’t.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a Presidential Lecture Series sponsored by The Family Leader, at Pella Christian High School in Pella, Iowa on May 2. Republican candidates for president are discovering that the economy and government spending are trumping the usual issues of abortion and gay marriage in socially conservative Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

1. Why is Santorum running?

Santorum sees himself as the candidate who can best represent social conservatives, political analysts say.

However, Santorum does not see the 2012 campaign simply as a forum to discuss cultural values, observers and supporters say. He wants to tackle jihadism, which he sees as the root of terrorism. He also advocates limiting government, and restoring fiscal responsibility inWashington, says Sam Clovis, a professor atMorningside College and a talk-radio host inSioux CityIowa, who has interviewed Santorum three times.

The health-care plan President Obama signed into law in 2010 was “the final straw for [Santorum] in terms of what it means for freedom and the future of the country,” says Richard Girard, an entrepreneur in New Hampshire whom Santorum named to his PAC’s advisory committee in the state. Santorum has voiced concern that the new health-care system will lead to devaluing all human life. Santorum has a personal stake in the issue as the father of seven children, including a daughter who was diagnosed with a genetic disorder, Mr. Girard says.

Santorum’s longtime love of politics and tremendous self-confidence are key factors in a presidential bid, too, says Alan Novak, who served as chairman of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania. Santorum’s political acumen has helped catapult him to two improbable victories in Congressional races. In 1990, he won a House seat in the Pittsburghsuburbs by ousting seven-term incumbent Rep. Doug Walgren. In 1994, he narrowly defeated another incumbent, Sen. Harris Wofford, during a year of a Republican wave.

Santorum has grown accustomed to being an underdog, as he is now. “Every time he’s underestimated, that’s when he surprises people,” says Mr. Novak.

Republican presidential hopeful and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum shakes hands with New Hampshire state Rep. Thomas Howard before touring Rugar Firearms in Newport, N.H. on May 31. (Jim Cole/AP Photo)

2. What are his strengths?

Novak notes how Santorum takes retail campaigning to a new level, thriving in the living-room setting with his soft tone and personal style. “He knows how to humanize issues. He’ll talk about what the budget deficit means for people coming out of college and getting homes.”

That ability to connect extends to being clear and concise on foreign affairs, says Professor Clovis, where Santorum’s eight years of experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee stand him in good stead with voters.

Santorum wins praise from supporters for being a straight-shooter and for bringing up uncomfortable subjects before they became acceptable to address.

“He has been a visionary,” says Girard, noting that Santorum has long advocated shoring up the nation’s financial health through entitlement reform. When Santorum spoke of reforming Social Security in 1994, his poll “numbers dropped like a rock,” says Novak.

Possible 2012 presidential hopeful and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, talks with GOP activist Sue Carrol on May 12 in Salem, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP Photo)

3. What are his challenges?

Santorum’s national name recognition is poor, which can pose a huge hurdle in the race to raise cash.

Santorum is also seen as unable to win a presidential election because his views are not in the mainstream. Analysts note his 18-point loss in his reelection bid in 2006 inPennsylvania, a swing state.

Santorum may also face a problem for voting for policies that added to the federal deficit while serving in Congress, says G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. One such vote was for the Medicare prescription drug program.

In this May 2, 2011, photo, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks during a Presidential Lecture Series sponsored by The Family Leader, at Pella Christian High School in Pella, Iowa on May 2. (Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

4. Who is Santorum’s natural base?

Social conservatives see in Santorum someone who articulates their beliefs and speaks their language. Some in Iowa have already taken to him, particularly in the northwestern part of the state that is highly Republican, says Clovis.

During his career in Congress, Santorum was popular with the National Federation of Independent Business, and received support from CEOs of family-owned businesses, including Jim Herr of Herr’s Potato Chips, says Novak.

Many retirees have contributed to Santorum’s PAC, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks federal campaign contributions.

Santorum may also draw support from people who are dealing with autism in their families. While he was in the Senate, he cosponsored the Combating Autism Act that became law. “He’s a hero to the autism community,” saysJohn Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in ClaremontCalif.

Possible 2012 presidential hopeful and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania speaks with political activists on May 12 in Salem, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP Photo)

5. What’s his war chest like?

His America’s Foundation PAC, which he can access for only certain expenses, has raised over $2 million in four of the past five election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Major donors include John Templeton Foundation employees; Tyco International CEO Edward BreenFranklin Schoeneman, a Schoeneman Beauty Supply executive; andRobert Toner, a Tower Cable Equipment executive.

6. What’s his political experience?

Rick Santorum represented the 18th District ofPennsylvania in the US House from 1991-1995, and then served in the US Senate from Pennsylvania from 1995-2007.

Presidential hopeful and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania speaks during a We the People candidates forum on April 30. (Jim Cole/AP Photo)

7. What is his religious and family background?

A devout Roman Catholic who regularly attends Mass, Santorum is married to Karen, and they have seven children: Johnny, Daniel, Elizabeth, Peter, Patrick, Sarah Maria, and Isabella.

In his book “It Takes a Family,” he criticizes parts of American culture that he says do not preserve the family.

8. What is his media presence?

Santorum authored “It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good” and “Rick Santorum: A Senator Speaks Out on Life, Freedom, and Responsibility.” He also was a contributor to Fox News, wrote a column forThe Philadelphia Inquirer, and has guest hosted Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio program.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania speaks during a town hall meeting held at the Best Western Plus Dubuque Hotel in Dubuque, Iowa on April 26. (Dave Kettering/Telegraph Herald/AP Photo)

9. In his own words

‘The Judiciary cannot create life, and it did not create marriage, and it has no right to redefine either one.’

Obama’s hurdles in the general election

Patchwork Nation

Click here for original publication.

Tuesday was the last hurdle of what had become a 16-month obstacle course toward the Democratic presidential nomination. As Sen. Barack Obama claimed the title of nominee last night, most of the buzz was on the historical significance. It was a poignant moment in American politics, his anointing as the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party. But it wasn’t the strongest finish. Senator Obama crossed the line with another split decision, winning Montana but losing South Dakota. He capped off the primary season by performing well in the college towns and minority communities that have been his strongholds. Despite inspiring millions of voters with his message of change, the presumptive nominee has work to do in the general-election campaign to win over his Democratic rival’s core constituencies: working-class voters and seniors. For her part, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to be a serious major-party presidential contender, signaled that she isn’t leaving the stage quietly. First came the leak early yesterday that she would “be open to” the vice-presidential slot. Next, in her speech Tuesday night, she did not concede but rather asked supporters to go to her campaign website to share their thoughts about what her next step should be. Then, she added to her popular vote total with a solid victory in South Dakota, beating Obama 55 percent to 45 percent. “You had the last word in this primary season and it was worth the wait,” Senator Clinton told South Dakotans in her speech from New York. Clinton carried 52 of the state’s 66 counties, including the two largest, both “Emptying Nests,” which tend to have more older voters than the average county. Minnehana “where the water laughs” County – home to South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls – gave her 56 percent of the vote, and she won Pennington County with 52 percent. She also took 11 of the state’s 17 “Service Worker Centers,” counties where many people struggle to make ends meet and are feeling the effects of the economic downturn. Obama won in the “Minority Central” counties of Corson, Mellette, Ziebach, Shannon, and Buffalo, which have relatively high percentages of native Americans. He also carried the “Campus and Careers” counties of Clay and Brookings. Most of the state is considered “Tractor Country,” which tends not to get much attention from candidates because residents there make up a such a small portion of the electorate. In Montana, Obama had a better showing with 56 percent of the vote, while Clinton received 41 percent. He won seven of its 11 “Service Worker Centers” including the most populous county, Yellowstone, in the south-central part of the state. He also took three “Emptying Nests” counties and the state’s 17 “Evangelical Epicenters,” which have large numbers of evangelical Christians. Of course, Montana is unlikely to land in the Democratic column this fall – one reason Obama didn’t revel in his victory there on Tuesday. Obama opted to give his celebratory speech Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn., at the Xcel Energy Center, the same site where Sen. John McCain will accept the GOP nomination three months from now. On the night when Obama sealed the Democratic nomination, Senator McCain spoke in Kenner, La., just outside of New Orleans. He took on Obama and indicated the themes he’s likely to stress between now and the general election: his independence and integrity, which made him popular with independents when he ran in the 2000 Republican primary. Battlegrounds are likely to be counties classified as “Monied ’Burbs,” as well as those characterized as “Boom Towns,” where the population is rapidly diversifying. In both community types, John Kerry and George W. Bush nearly split the vote in 2004 – and they contain a large percentage of the electorate. As attention turns to the general-election campaign, a key question is whether Obama will be able to make more inroads in places that have largely been Clinton country. She has a sizable base of voters, many of whom live in Service Worker Centers, Emptying Nests, and Immigration Nation counties, where the rising bloc of Hispanic voters are concentrated. Blue-collar workers and seniors have a track record of coming out to the polls. Perhaps winning greater support from those constituencies will be a factor in Obama’s choice of a running mate. Another question is whether the college towns that have supported Obama will continue to be his in November. History suggests that a candidate cannot count on young people to turn out, a column in The Wall Street Journal recently noted, which Patchwork Nation’s blogger in Ann Arbor, Mich., seemed to validate. Obama’s mixed-race heritage may also affect how some people vote. Forty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, many Americans are proud that an African-American has a shot at the White House, but the primary season has also shown that in many places being African-American is not an asset. As for how the issue of patriotism might factor into the campaign, McCain’s status as a war hero will probably cement his victory in “Military Bastions,” and perhaps play well in places like small-town Pennsylvania, which Obama probably needs to win to become president. McCain seemed to wrap himself in the flag Tuesday night. Obama, meanwhile, has come under criticism for not wearing a flag pin.

Four New Hampshire independents, four reasons they voted Democratic

Christian Science Monitor

Click here for original publication.

A majority of independent voters in Tuesday’s presidential primary chose one of the Democratic candidates. Those who voted on the GOP side helped boost McCain to victory.

BEDFORD AND GOFFSTOWN, N.H.

Andre Gibeau‘s decision came down to a choice between following his head or his heart. His heart was beating “90 percent” for Rep. Dennis Kucinich, he says. But “10 percent” was thinking: Sen. Barack Obama. In the end, he says, he followed his heart.

Betty Ward was won over by Senator Obama and his message of hope.

Donna Richards, after careful calculation of all the candidates’ policies and worldviews, went with John Edwards.

These unaffiliated voters, like about 6 in 10 New Hampshire independents, cast Democratic ballots in the state primary Tuesday, according to a Monitor analysis of NBC exit polls. Enough of these political free spirits pulled Republican ballots to help boost Sen. John McCain to victory on the GOP side. But the overarching tilt of Granite State independents toward the Democrats, mirroring the trend five days earlier inIowa, may be an early indicator of how America‘s growing ranks of independent voters may tilt come November.

“In New Hampshire and nationwide it bodes well for the Democratic nominee and the rest of Democrats on the ticket because independents actually did vote in the Democratic primary,” saysDick Bennett, president of the American Research Group, a polling firm based in Manchester, N.H. “Independents dislike partisanship and don’t really like to participate in primaries.”

Interest in New Hampshire independents has been high because, well, they make up such a large share of the electorate here: 44 percent. True to their reputation as unpredictable and freethinking, many had not made up their minds until primary day or a few days before.

Focus on the Constitution

Even Mr. Gibeau, a self-described news junkie, was undecided as of Tuesday morning. OnElection Day, he had two TVs on – one tuned to CNN, one to MSNBC – and he continued to read online and listen to the radio.

Gibeau, an attorney, says he had the US Constitution uppermost in thought when he went in to vote. He was drawn to Ohio‘s Representative Kucinich because of their shared views on “personal liberties, restoring the Constitution, focusing on the balance of trade, especially where China is concerned,” he says.

He was adamant that his vote not be a strategic decision. “If I voted for Obama, it would be less for Obama and more against Hillary [Rodham Clinton].” He cites his “dislike of Bill Clinton‘s foreign policy and the suspicious activities that the Clintons have been engaged in” as reasons Mrs. Clinton was not his candidate.

Gibeau says he’s satisfied with his decision. “I went with my conscience and my heart,” he says.

Concern for kids’ future

Ms. Richards made her decision within the past two weeks, after seeing Mr. Edwards in person for a second time. She was eager to settle on someone so she could help her candidate win, she says. Edwards’s detailed policies were only part of the reason she chose him.

“He’ll be the one sitting behind the desk thinking about the garden-variety American. It’s not cerebral for him, it’s not academic, it’s not political, it’s personal,” Richards says.

Edwards is also the one she would trust with her children. “His message about leaving the world better for your children is very powerful. Other people adopted it. I am of the generation where my kids may not make out better than I did,” she says.

Appeal of a ‘fresh face’

Ms. Ward’s moment of decision came Monday evening. She liked what Bill RichardsonRon Paul, and Dennis Kucinich had to say about the Iraq war. So what was it about Obama that sealed the deal for her? “Sometimes it takes someone with a fresh face to say an old message so it’s brand-new,” she says.

Obama drew more of the independent vote here – about 24 percent – than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican. Clinton garnered about 18.6 percent of independents, and Senator McCain 15.1 percent. The remainder cast ballots for one of the nine other candidates, the exit poll data showed.

Ward acknowledges that by voting for Obama she made compromises on issues she cares about, including his position on the war in Afghanistan. “I want all the boys and girls home in America,” she says, and out of harm’s way.

The decision, ultimately, was not an easy one for her. “I don’t feel the fire in this,” she says.

Independent voter Russ Ouellette, on the other hand, says he was “very excited” to vote for Obama. The issues weren’t what moved him. He was looking for someone who would be a “leader,” able to “move beyond fear and divisiveness to get something done.” He was inspired by Obama’s call for “a new kind of politics.”

The Illinois senator’s personal story is compelling, too, he says.

“Part of me is glad that he is an African-American. Part of me is glad that he has a Muslim name. Part of me is glad that he has no experience. Because that is drastically different. The traditional rich white man with 35 years of experience is not necessarily going to be able to think objectively about what needs to be done.”

But Mr. Ouellette wants to ensure that Obama will remain as committed to reaching out to independents and Republicans as his sweeping words suggest.

For that reason, Ouellette tempers his enthusiasm with a note of caution. “I reserve my feelings because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.

Other stories in this series appeared Nov. 20 and Dec. 24.

Adroit online, Ron Paul backers hit the streets of N.H.

Christian Science Monitor

Click here for original publication.

‘Paulites’ see the first primary state as fertile ground for their candidate’s iconoclastic political views.

MANCHESTER, N.H.

They’re coming from Miami and Seattle, from the “big sky” state of Montana, and from close to home here in New Hampshire. They’re coming to help political iconoclast Ron Paul get elected president – many as campaign first-timers who, characteristically independent, may not even feel obliged to tell the Paul camp what exactly they’re planning to do on the candidate’s behalf.

The Paulites’ push for old-style, on-the-ground politicking in New Hampshire, coming just five weeks before the primary, marks a change for a support network that has always relied on websites and online fundraising. They’re here now because they see the Granite State – with its reputation as antitax, anti-big government, and pro-individual freedom – as especially fertile ground for a libertarian-leaning Republican candidate like Mr. Paul.

“New Hampshire is really important because it’s the first primary and it sends a message to other states about who’s viable and who the leading candidates are. There was all this Internet enthusiasm, but we didn’t have enough boots on the ground,” says Vijay Boyapati, a Google engineer who recently left the Seattle firm to work on Paul’s campaign.

Mr. Boyapati arrived Saturday in Manchester, N.H., to head up a project of his own invention: Operation Live Free or Die, named after the state motto. His aim is to bring 1,000 volunteers to New Hampshire to canvass for Paul. He calculates that if each volunteer, working seven to eight hours a day, meets 100 people daily, then the project can reach out personally to almost all 100,000 residents of Manchester before the Jan. 8 primary.

Then there’s Linda Lagana of Merrimack, N.H. Using her graphic-design talent and a small print shop, she has been creating Paul-for-president ads and fliers for months on the cheap. Her materials have ended up in the hands of voters across the state – and are even preferred to official campaign literature. Her highest-profile project so far: designing an advertisement published in USA Today the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Trevor Lyman, an online music promoter, already helped raise $4.2 million for Paul in a one-day Internet event Nov. 5. Two weeks ago he moved from Miami to Manchester, where he lives in a “frat house” with seven bedrooms, he says. He spends his days and nights working on other “money bomb” campaigns for the GOP candidate. At 37, Mr. Lyman plans to cast his first vote ever – for Paul on Jan. 8.

Once politically apathetic, these Paul supporters join many others who have become turbocharged almost overnight.

Now they’ve launched Five for Freedom, a campaign to get people to contribute $5 each to help those who want to live and volunteer in New Hampshire. So far, the cause has received more than 1,200 pledges.

Another money campaign is Lyman’s bid to raise $10 million online on Dec. 16, the anniversary of the 1773 Boston Tea Party protest of taxation without representation. Nearly 24,000 people have pledged to donate $100. Lyman’s fundraiser highlights an “inflation tax.” The donation website, teaparty07.com, links to a YouTube video in which Paul, during a TV appearance, explains the toll on citizens as the cost of living rises and the dollar declines in value.

Paul’s bricks-and-mortar campaign, for its part, is not involved in these “day to donate” efforts and uses more traditional methods, such as phone banking and literature drops, to court Granite State voters. It bought $1.1 million in local TV ad time and has nine people on staff in New Hampshire, up from five a few months ago, according to the campaign.

There are signs that Paul is beginning to make a dent here, after months of registering in the low single digits in polls of likely GOP voters. In several polls he is running fourth or fifth, with 8 percent. But the American Research Group, which released the latest survey Friday, shows Paul at 2 percent among that GOP group. He’s at 7 percent among independents.

Paul draws support from those who are disaffected with both the Republican and Democratic parties, says Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “He has a cap of about 10 to 15 percent of the electorate and hasn’t reached it yet,” he says.

Paul’s campaign and grass-roots supporters say they can reach beyond that.

“New Hampshire is uniquely suited to be a springboard for Ron Paul, since it’s a small-government-minded state,” says Kate Rick, media coordinator for the Paul campaign in the state.

Boyapati, the former Google engineer, wants to be that springboard. He plans to meet with a real estate agent this week to rent out 50 to 100 vacation homes in the state to Paul backers, he says, and has been flooded with e-mails from prospective volunteers, including a single mother with no savings and a retired couple from Montana.

When volunteers arrive, the plan is for them to go straight to Paul campaign headquarters, where they’ll get information packets about the obstetrician-turned-congressman and his issues.

“They’re going to train canvassers to be respectful, not leaving materials in the mailbox when people aren’t home. Etiquette is important. We’re all guests in New Hampshire,” says Boyapati.

It probably won’t be too long before volunteers find Paulites’ watering holes, as Boyapati did. Murphy’s Taproom, an Irish pub in downtown Manchester, is one venue where supporters meet to talk strategy, particularly on Tuesday nights. Boyapati was there the day he arrived and got a surprise: Paul himself showed up, stood on a chair, and gave an impromptu speech. “It was kind of explosive,” says Boyapati. “The whole place was cheering and screaming.”

Many Paul supporters cite their man’s opposition to the Iraq war as the key reason he has their support. Paul is the only Republican candidate to call for pulling US troops out of Iraq, and he voted against going to war in 2002.

“The wake-up point was the 2006 election. The Democrats ran on a campaign of let’s get out of the war. It was a betrayal,” says Lyman. “What they did was a ‘surge.’ There was more war after a campaign that was against the war.”

Not all Paul’s issues are in the mainstream. Some supporters seize upon his call to legalize competing currencies, including gold and silver, and eventually abolish the Federal Reserve, eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, and renounce America’s membership to the United Nations. But they share a common trait: wanting to restore the Constitution, says a Paul campaign spokeswoman.

“I’m a big constitutionalist. Everyone falls under the constitutionalism umbrella, whether it’s the war or other issues,” says the campaign’s Ms. Rick.

Paul does have huge hurdles to overcome. In focus groups, some women see him as “inconsistent” in that he holds libertarian views but is opposed to a woman’s right to choose abortion, says Dick Bennett of the American Research Group in Manchester. Sixty-one percent of likely GOP voters in New Hampshire say they will not vote for him under any circumstances, according to a University of New Hampshire poll.

But some say that if Paul is smart he’ll stay focused on the Granite State. “New Hampshire is where the Republicans are going to be duking it out,” says Arnie Arnesen, a TV and radio talk-show host here.

“He has a passionate base, and this is a numbers game.” With so many candidates in the race, she adds, “he just needs to get a majority of the minority.”

In New Hampshire, independent voters turn to alternative media

Christian Science Monitor

Click here for original publication.

The undecided in the first US primary use the Web and e-mails for news to get closer to candidates.

BEDFORD, N.H.

Anyone who doubts that voters are often bypassing traditional media to learn about candidates should spend a little time with Russ Ouellette.

The New Hampshire independent estimates that he spends six to seven hours a week these days reviewing his options on which presidential contender to vote for. He keeps a list of all of them, crossing names out one by one as he eliminates them or they drop out of the race. Spirited discussions with his wife or his father are nearly as frequent as perusing websites such as The Hankster or getting Google News alerts pegged to key words he’s chosen, including “independent.”

Then there are the four to five e-mails his friends send each day with Web links he should check out. That’s how he discovered Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa last month. And he was wowed but not completely sold, he says.

As voters like Mr. Ouellette mull over their choices, they’re using old means of communication – like word-of-mouth and personal contact with candidates – as well as new ones like the Internet. What they’re relying on less is traditional media. Even here in New Hampshire, where voters make more of an effort to stay informed than the average citizen, many are paying less attention to TV news and newspapers than in past election cycles. Though these civically-minded voters can’t ignore it, especially with the myriad debates on cable news, they’re finding that it’s not all that helpful in their decisionmaking and sometimes serves as a mere distraction.

“People are deeply cynical about the media these days,” says Michael Krasner, a political scientist at Queens College in Flushing, N.Y. “They are relying more heavily on friends and family, and it may open up the Web as an alternative source of information.”

Nationally, a majority of people are suspicious of press coverage of the campaign. Sixty-four percent do not trust it, and 61 percent say that 2008 coverage focuses too much on trivial issues, according to a survey released last month by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University.

In the Granite State, home of the nation’s first primary, it’s a running joke that New Hampshirites can’t make up their minds until they meet the candidates. “They want to see them in the flesh, talk to them and ask them questions,” says Mr. Krasner. The sheer number of candidates in such a small state means that voters can often trip over them.

Democratic candidates more visible

Nearly three-quarters of Democrats or undeclared voters likely to vote in the Democratic primary have been called on the telephone by a campaign, while 35 percent attended a campaign event, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll released this month. Just 17 percent had spoken with or shaken the hand of a Democratic hopeful. In contrast, among Republicans or undeclared voters planning to vote in the GOP primary, 54 percent have been called, 17 percent have attended a campaign event, and 15 percent have spoken with or shaken the hand of a GOP candidate.

But lately it has become more difficult for voters to see candidates of either party up close. A compressed primary calendar has states’ contests so close together that New Hampshire is competing for attention among the other states with early contests, including Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida.

“It’s not that they’re snubbing New Hampshire but that the compression … requires them to be in other places,” says Wayne Lesperance, professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H. New Hampshire’s primary on Jan. 8 comes just five days after the Iowa caucuses.

Under these circumstances, voters find that it’s best to get as close to the source as they possibly can. When Donna Richards, an independent, isn’t poring over a candidate’s website, she may be grilling a candidate’s representatives when they come to her door or call her up, she says.

“I find that the candidates have some very articulate and knowledgeable young people working for them and they’re able to pretty accurately speak in their stead, which is helpful,” Ms. Richards says.

The staff of Democratic contender John Edwards has impressed her. She refers to an 80-page online document that outlines his policies. “His campaign workers have it down cold,” she says.

She also discusses candidates with family members. When her brother came to her Nashua, N.H., home, he noted the Obama sign on her lawn, which her college-age son had put up. It precipitated a discussion at the dinner table about Obama, whom her “die-hard Republican” brother also likes. “My son likes Obama; my brother likes Obama. I probably will consider that in my decision,” she says.

For Betty Ward, an independent, picking a candidate is equally intense. Each day the third-grade teacher devotes her lunch hour to reading websites such as AlterNet, BuzzFlash, Digg, and The Huffington Post. She frequently skips over the mainstream media outlets, saying that they’re not as objective as she would like. As Ms. Ward ruminates over candidates, she often talks over with friends the issues she cares about, including Iraq and the economy.

When Richards can see the candidates, she, like many New Hampshire voters, prefers townhall-style venues where the candidates can engage with voters and see “how they answer questions off the cuff.” She was offered tickets to see Oprah in Manchester but turned them down for that reason.

Richards approaches whom she will vote for the way she does all other important decisions in her life, she says. She’s researching and digging, but still waiting for the “aha” moment. “It hasn’t hit me yet,” she says.

Independent voter Andre Gibeau says being flooded with information is the best way to make an informed decision. The self-described news junkie says he watches MSNBC’s “Hardball,” CNN, listens to NPR in the car, and reads all different news websites. “I probably watch more news than most people find healthy,” he says.

Voter: Media unfair to underdogs

But even he expresses disappointment with the coverage because he wants the media to “give truly equal time to all candidates and all ideas – not just give time to the candidates everybody thinks are popular.”

Though he talks about the race with his wife and father, “it’s very personal in terms of who I finally choose.” He’s leaning toward picking up a Democratic ballot but hasn’t settled on a candidate yet, he says.

While experts note that voters are often led by a feeling, Mr. Gibeau says this should not supplant reason. “We’re all given the ability to reason. The gut feeling is an excuse for not using reason.”

Similarly, he says relying on “faith is a little too mystic for me. Faith is something that I rely on for everyday. Praying to show me who the best candidate is I don’t think is going to do it.”

Negative campaigning can change a person’s opinion of a candidate. Say, for example, if a candidate were personally attacking another candidate’s intelligence or morality, Ouellette would reconsider voting for him or her.

Gibeau says he tunes the candidates out at this point, figuring that they’re not sincere.

For voters, the decision can rest on whether they like a candidate and whether they see the contender as electable. It could be strategic, too, says Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

“Strategic voting could happen in New Hampshire more than other places because of the open process,” says Mr. Scala. “Undeclared voters can be a Democrat or Republican for five minutes with no consequences. There’s no lingering cost for crashing one party and leaving.”

Voting strategy crosses party lines

Ouellette explains how he’s caught between wanting his vote to be “meaningful” and wanting to vote for candidate he likes.

“Do I vote in the Republican primary and vote for Ron Paul because he’s a maverick and I want to send a message? Or do I vote for Obama and do something for Obama so that he can beat Hillary [Clinton], because I know she’s not someone I want? I’m not voting for: ‘Yeah, this is the guy.’ This is the decision process that I’m getting into. I don’t want to do that. I want to feel compelled to vote for someone because I love them and I feel passionate about them,” he says.

Gibeau’s rationale is a bit different. “This is the fun one where you get to vote for whoever you like. The general [election] is about the lesser of the two evils,” he says.

Part 1 appeared Nov. 20.

In New Hampshire, the swing voters who count first

Christian Science Monitor

Click here for original publication.

In New Hampshire, undeclared voters dominate the political landscape and may hold the key to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

MANCHESTER AND NASHUA, N.H.

As schoolteacher Betty Ward evaluates the 16 candidates running for president, uppermost in her mind is: Who will get US troops out of Iraq? She’s mulling over whom to vote for.

Donna Richards will vote for someone who can be trusted and whose aim is to bring about peace. Her choice: undecided.

Attorney Andre Gibeau is seeking a candidate with courage to return to Congress much of the power he believes was usurped by President Bush.

Meet some of New Hampshire’s freethinking and increasingly dissatisfied independents, who quite possibly hold the key to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. They dwarf the ranks of registered Democrats or Republicans in this state. What they’re thinking may well signal which themes will strike a chord with the roughly 20 percent of voters nationwide who consider themselves independents.

“New Hampshire will be a good test to see what [independents] find attractive on both sides,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Despite their diversity, New Hampshire’s independents share some characteristics. They tend to be among the most fiscally conservative of the state’s voters. The bad feelings they harbor toward the Bush administration’s runaway spending have moved them further away from the GOP, and state polls consistently show they’ve been tilting toward the Democrats. But they’re frustrated with the polarization in American politics and are increasingly dissatisfied with both parties for their inability to tackle America’s most intractable problems.

“More than anything they have a lack of confidence in the political leadership,” says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm in Manchester.

Russ Ouellette is among those who have lost faith in political professionals and wants to hear candidates talk about wide-ranging reform. “We can’t respond to hurricanes,” says the business consultant from Bedford, N.H. “We’re at war with an enemy that seems almost made up. We’re supposed to live in fear all the time, yet go shopping to solve the problem.”

In general, voters are feeling insecurity in nearly every area of their lives, Mr. Bennett says. “People go to work and when they return home they find gas is 7 cents higher.”

In the current political environment, the message that resonates most is one that promises hope for a better future and solves such problems. A recurring theme in presidential elections, it’s a far more important point to stress this time “because the world we live in is more complex,” he adds.

Independents here say that they want a leader who is not only a problem solver but is also forward-thinking.

“I think whoever gets elected now will have a lot more responsibility to the future than presidents of the past,” says Ms. Richards. “Before, the focus was on the economy: ‘What can I have now?’ I think with things like global warming, the depletion of our oil resources, Medicare and Social Security, the next president needs to be forward-thinking, a steward of the planet and the people on it and the programs so we’re not headed for a wall … down the road.

But this can-do spirit should not come at the expense of empathy, she and others agree.

“I would like to see somebody who cares more about the country than the party, someone who really cares about the future of our children and the children I teach, like what does the future look like 15 if not 20 years down the road,” says Ms. Ward, who voted for Republican John McCain in the 2000 primary and Democrat Howard Dean in the 2004 primary.

But lately independents have become disenchanted with the Democratic Party because of a lack of action in Congress on a withdrawal plan from Iraq since the 2006 midterm elections, Bennett says.

“What our country is doing does not represent me as an American,” Ward says. “I think there’s a disconnect between what our policies are and what people want. In 2006, the election was to stop the war. To take the majority rule and make some impact…. Now we might be going to Iran. The war hasn’t stopped in Iraq.”

Many of independents’ votes are still up for grabs in the upcoming primary, which has not yet been officially scheduled. While 41 percent of the state’s voters say they plan to vote in the Democratic primary, another 40 percent haven’t decided which primary they will vote in, according to a poll taken last month by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Just 19 percent plan to participate in the GOP primary, the poll reported.

The growth of independents is mirrored nationwide. In 1960, only 1.6 percent of the electorate identified themselves as independent; in 2004, they accounted for 21.7 percent in the 28 states and the District of Columbia that register voters by party, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

Their numbers have swelled because many voters have become “dulled” by or have stopped believing in politics, says Curtis Gans, the center’s director.

As the state waits for New Hampshire’s secretary of state, Bill Gardner, to set the primary date, independents, in particular, say they are thankful that the election isn’t tomorrow since they haven’t found their candidate yet.

“I’m glad I don’t have to decide yet. I have one little vote but to me it’s very important,” Richards says.

Independent voters of all stripes share what kind of president they seek.

Betty Ward, schoolteacher:

“There’s so many tiers of handlers. Like a corporation within itself. They’re so guarded. They’re so worried about winning. I just don’t think all of this is real; it’s almost surreal. I would like something really authentic. I want to feel that somebody up there has hope…. I want to be inspired.”

Andre Gibeau, attorney:

“I want the professor candidate. I want the person who takes it all in and thinks about it and puts together the people to think about it.”

Russ Ouellette, consultant:

“There are bigger issues to talk about than who are you voting for. Let’s talk about reform.”

Donna Richards, small-business owner:

“What I’m looking for … has to do with who they are as a person and what their policies are, as well. It has to be someone who … will speak the truth and act according to what he or she has set forth as their core values or principles or policies. I think we’ve lost that … trust in our leaders. I think that’s not only important to us as citizens of this country, but on the world stage they need to be credible.” .

Since independents aren’t organized or listed on any party’s Rolodex, they play a special role in Granite State politics. They’re observers rather than activists, says Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire TV and radio talk-show host.

So campaigns reaching out for their support are tailoring their message – with varying levels of success.

Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has focused on appealing to female voters, has the support of 45 percent of women who are likely to vote in the Democratic primary, according to a poll released by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion on Nov. 11.

Barack Obama is targeting the 18-to-24 demographic, which tends to register as undeclared, says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group. Mr. Obama leads Ms. Clinton by 13 percent among first-time voters, according to the Marist poll. Overall, he is closing a 20-point gap with Clinton, the Democrats’ front-runner.

But “There’s been no clear candidate for change. No one’s grabbed that mantle, not even Obama,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist.

Former Democratic Sen. John Edwards hopes that he will. “My message runs across party lines and ideological lines,” he told reporters after a recent speech.

On the Republican side, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani garners 24 percent of independents, while Sen. John McCain of Arizona captures 22 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney draws 19 percent in the Marist poll. Giuliani receives more backing from moderates than his rivals.

At the same time, GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has piqued the interest among some people here by talking about limited government and withdrawing troops from Iraq. He has polled as high as 7 percent.

“He’s the only [Republican] who doesn’t scare the daylight out of me,” says attorney Andre Gibeau, mostly because of Mr. Paul’s focus on constitutional rights. “I don’t think any enemy from the outside can do the damage to the United States that we can do internally if we change the nature of our democracy.”

Senator McCain’s campaign is seeking to revive the magic McCain had when he courted and won voters in 2000. In that New Hampshire primary, the antiestablishment candidates McCain and Bill Bradley (D) competed for support among independent voters, who turned out by a significant margin to help McCain trounce George W. Bush by 19 points.

Although polls show independents are poised to vote in the Democratic contest this time, Mr. Scala cautions that if the Democratic primary looks as if it’s going to be a rout, they may vote in the Republican contest instead.

Betty Ward says she’s likely to decide which ballot to choose on Election Day and make her final decision in the voting booth. “I really don’t know at this point because it’s just too far off,” she adds.

In US’s big presidential fields, who gets how much debate time?

Christian Science Monitor

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Attention on ‘top tier’ candidates in this week’s debates prompts calls for a more evenhanded format.

GOFFSTOWN, N.H.

The presidential debates televised this week from New Hampshire are generating, well, a lot of debate.

Specifically, the amount of time the camera and the microphone went to so-called “top tier” candidates, versus lesser time for lesser-known aspirants, is prompting calls for a more equal-opportunity format at this early stage in the 2008 campaign.

The complaints might be shrugged off merely as sour grapes by less-than-leading candidates in two very crowded fields – except that political analysts, voter-turnout advocates, and voters themselves seem inclined to take their side.

“The debates were reasonable, though a disproportionate share of the attention was on the top-tier candidates,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., who watched them on TV. “Initially, it’s of value to always give a chance to all the candidates.”

Many who attended the debates, jamming into a glammed-up hockey rink at Saint Anselm College here, already have a favorite horse in the race. But for millions of Americans who tuned in on CNN, the forums may well help to form their impressions of the candidates, and the amount of camera time a candidate gets can work to subtly shape notions of who’s a contender and who’s not, some analysts say.

True, the sheer size of the field, eight Democrats and 10 Republicans so far, makes it hard to find a format that is both fair to candidates and relevant for voters. This week’s debates allowed most candidates the opportunity to give only a bare-bones explanation of their proposals or positions on issues – even though each debate ran, without commercial interruption, for two hours.

“A minute or 30 seconds on foreign policy is a parody of what it ought to be,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who senses that viewers are feeling short-changed. “It’s been more about the [CNN} anchors and reporters, and that’s the problem.”

In fact, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stole the show during Tuesday night’s debate among the Republican hopefuls, according to a “talk clock” that tracked candidates’ speaking time. Set up by the campaign of Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, the clock showed that Mr. Blitzer spoke for 19-1/2 minutes, compared with about 12-1/2 minutes for Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, and 11 for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Tommy Thompson, former secretary of Health and Human Services, didn’t get his first question until about 14 minutes into the debate – and ended up with 4 minutes, 21 seconds of time total. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee didn’t speak until about 17 minutes into the event.

During the Democrats’ debate on Sunday night, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois got the most time, with 16 minutes. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards of South Carolina also fared well, Senator Dodd’s clock showed. As for Dodd himself? He got 8-1/2 minutes – about half the time of Senator Obama.

“Really nothing about the debate was equitable, from the unprecedented assignment of podiums [with Obama, Senator Clinton, and Mr. Edwards at center stage] to the allotment of time,” says Dodd spokeswoman Christy Setzer. “We’ll count on the DNC [Democratic National Committee] at future events to mandate some even-handedness.”

CNN defended its handling of the debates, including its decision to place at center stage the three candidates with the highest poll numbers or biggest war chests.

“The candidate positions [on stage] were selected based on television angles. CNN felt most questions from the other [Democratic] candidates would be directed at Clinton, Edwards, and Obama, so the decision was made to place them in the center,” the network said in a statement. It handled the Republican debate similarly, placing Messrs. Guiliani and Romney and Senator McCain in the middle.

Some analysts disagreed with that decision.

“I give them credit for using their judgment, but it sent a signal: Only pay attention to the center of the stage,” says Dr. Sabado. “It’s damaging to the network. They need to realize that viewers believe they have hidden preferences.”

What kind of format would better serve voters?

Sabado suggests scheduling a series of debates, with only four or five candidates at each one, and the candidates at each one selected by a lottery system. He’d also like to see candidates ask questions of other candidates.

Dr. Pitney at Claremont McKenna College concurs that presidential debates with fewer candidates would be more revealing and would lead to much more information for voters.

“The campaign itself may solve the [debates] problem,” he adds, as candidates drop out and the fields winnow.

Mike Biundo, a senior adviser to the Thompson campaign, feels Tuesday’s debate was “very unfair as far as the time allotment,” but says there’s not much to be done about it.

For lesser-known candidates like Mr. Thompson, the answer is grass-roots campaigning in New Hampshire, he suggests.

“We’re sitting in the first-in-the-nation primary state that prides itself on the ability of all candidates have access … to voters,” says Mr. Biundo.

Election boosts trust in US voting systems

Christian Science Monitor

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Exit polls suggest that 88 percent of Americans felt confident in their voting device Tuesday.

This week, American democracy let out a collective sigh of relief.

Young voters took part in record numbers, despite growing up during one of the most troubled eras of American voting. Some 1.2 million poll workers minded the details and, for the most part, avoided election-altering gaffes. In precincts where problems did pop up, some voters got the word out through amateur videos; others waited in lines in a silent testament that the day wasn’t a pointless exercise.

In the end, exit polls found 88 percent of respondents felt confident in their voting device that day. And the widespread concerns about the legitimacy of recent elections didn’t discourage more than 40 percent of registered voters from showing up – apparently, the highest midterm turnout in a generation. “Decision 2006” may be remembered as a confidence-restoring election.

“We’ve seen more change in the past six years than we’ve seen in the previous 200” in the technology of voting, says Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, charged with assisting federal reforms. “I think we’re going to see more change, and certainly the introduction of more technology in this election process because people seem to like it and it works well.”

The election was far from smooth, however. Among the glitches:

•Machine problems. Some didn’t start up, others displayed the wrong ballot, and others, according to unverified allegations, registered votes for candidates whom voters had not picked.

•Poll worker gaffes. In several states, voters reported being asked for unnecessary identification. In Montana, a worker forgot to reset a counter, delaying the tally.

•Allegations of voter suppression. Democrats in New Mexico have charged that voters received calls that offered directions to the wrong polling place. In Virginia, the FBI is investigating similar complaints as well as an allegation that a resident was threatened with arrest if he voted.

But the consensus among election observers is that the problems – while still too numerous for comfort and difficult to track with some electronic voting technologies – appeared to be isolated and not systemic.

“In 2006, there were more problems overall, but they were largely minor,” says Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan reform watchdog in Washington. “Lots of fender benders, no pileups.”

The problems weren’t surprising, he and others say, in a year that saw the largest rollout ever of electronic voting machines. On Tuesday, more than 4 in 5 voters used some kind of electronic ballot.

“In lots of jurisdictions, preparation kept them from having any major problems,” says Mr. Chapin, who lauded Connecticut in particular for “obsessive” planning. “In the places where they did have problems, they just got lucky that they weren’t in races that ended up being close.”

Money also helped. This year, states spent the bulk of the $3.1 billion given out under the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Mr. DeGregorio says money went not just to equipment but to poll-worker recruitment and training as well as voter education.

The snags this year, he says, arose from inattention. “It shows that details matter in the conduct of elections [and] we can do a better job of helping to professionalize election administration in this country.”

Intense scrutiny of the process has helped poll workers stay on their toes, say experts.

This year, a new initiative called “Video the Vote” enlisted amateurs to film poll irregularities. The idea: to bring attention to voting problems even in elections where the winning margin was large enough that they would normally receive little attention.

“There’s so much focus on calling the winners and losers … that we lose sight of whether the voter was a winner or loser,” says Ian Inaba, one of the leaders of the project that has posted hundreds of interviews at videothevote.org. “You look at those lines in Denver and Missouri or listen to some of those voters in Maryland or even New Jersey – things were not OK [Tuesday]. There were a lot of frustrated people.”

Mr. Inaba and political bloggers are using more democratic media models to widen engagement in politics. They may be among many reasons that more people are checking back into politics.

Overall turnout surged to more than 40 percent this year, its highest level in a midterm election since 1982, according to a preliminary analysis by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

Several states saw gains over 2002, including Ohio, Montana, and Missouri, according to the Associated Press.

Hotly contested races in those states might have fueled the increases.

“Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote,” says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a voter-research institute at the University of Maryland.

The turnout of young people in this election was especially strong.

Voters aged 18 to 29 cast an estimated 10 million votes, or 13 percent of all ballots, up from 11 percent in 2002.

In one crucial election, the Senate race in Montana, young people made up 17 percent of the vote. The winning campaign of Democrat Jon Tester said it made “fairly aggressive” efforts to reach that demographic.

“There’s a new generation of voters that will turn out … if candidates target their vote. Young voters have left their mark on the 2006 election. It shows that they are a force,” says Heather Smith of Young Voter Strategies, a nonpartisan organization in Washington aimed at increasing youth turnout.

Young people voted for Democrats by a wide margin: 22 percentage points, according to CNN’s exit poll data. Many sought change on issues like Iraq, jobs, and education, says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

“The turnout shows that young people have confidence in the voting system,” says Mr. Levine. In general, the millennial generation has more positive attitudes toward government institutions than people might expect, he adds.

Ultimately, perceptions of progress in election reform may rest on the orderly resolution of the Senate race in Virginia.

News agencies have declared Democrat James Webb the winner, but at press time election workers had yet to finish canvassing votes and the incumbent, Sen. George Allen (R), had not conceded.

Any recount would not scrutinize individual ballots but merely recheck tabulations. This is partly due to the state’s switch to paperless electronic machines, a system widely criticized for the lack of transparency in just such an event.

The Republican Party: an incredible knack for winning

Christian Science Monitor

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How the GOP turned the art of electioneering into a science.

You could hardly turn on the television or pick up a newspaper in recent weeks without learning about a Republican running for his or her life. Of course, no one knows yet what voters will really do in the privacy of the voting booth next week.

But whatever happens on Election Day, nothing changes the fact that the Republican Party has the upper hand over the Democrats in the mechanics of campaigning: money, message, and organization. Even should the GOP suffer a setback at the polls, these formidable advantages will not disappear anytime soon.

The new book One Party Country: Republican Dominance in the 21st Century examines the nuts-and-bolts of the way Republicans have been building this sturdy foundation aimed at achieving successive election victories.

At a time when Republicans have not articulated a clear strategy in the Iraq war and have bungled the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, “One Party Country” suggests that the immediate priority and long-range plan of the Republican Party is wrapped up in winning elections. With so much of the focus on electoral tactics, the offshoot is that governing the country takes a secondary role.

“One Party Country” does a good job of spelling out the GOP electoral strategy objectively and in detail, and without evidence of partisan leanings.

Written by two investigative reporters for the Los Angeles Times, Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, this book shows the signs of incisive journalistic digging. Early on, a minihistory lesson shows how the Republicans seized the opportunities for electoral success afforded by redistricting, particularly in the South.

More recently, the Republican Party has shown that it is well on its way to flawlessly executing the technique of microtargeting – developing messages and reaching specific individuals who are most likely to vote for a candidate. A new approach to conducting campaigns, it puts the onus on campaign staffs to learn about voters, including those who have not turned out in the past.

The authors extensively discuss the Voter Vault, a database of names, voter registrations, positions on key issues, and marketing information that can help the GOP reach new voters.

With this under-the-radar model, the Republicans would take the Democrats by surprise, the authors say. “It was the political equivalent of stealth technology in air power: Democrats would feel the bombs explode, but they could not see the bombers.”

In 2004, the Bush campaign, led by master strategists Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, spent $120 million in grass-roots politicking.

It’s been successful so far, according to Hamburger and Wallsten. In numerous regions of the country, Republicans are siphoning off votes from several demographic groups that traditionally vote Democratic: Latinos, African-Americans, and Jews.

In the current environment, politics goes beyond targeting blocs of voters right before elections. Republicans frame all issues, including managing governmental regulations, in terms of gaining political advantage. Bush’s faith-based initiatives were intended to cultivate support among African-American preachers, and educational reforms have helped him with minority voters.

Even mid-level bureaucrats don’t escape the attention of GOP political operatives, the authors write.

They also explain the importance of the conservative network’s weekly meetings led by Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform in keeping the two main groups (the fiscal and social conservatives) focused on their common GOP connection.

The reporters were able to get into a few of these private forums where conservatives can promote a message or share disagreements. Mr. Rove explained the Medicare prescription drug plan to this gathering and encouraged them to support it or keep mum if they did not, all for continued electoral success.

Particularly with midterm elections looming, “One Party Country” leaves the reader with fundamental questions: Are the Democrats about to put a halt to Republican dominance? If not, what might US society look like with a one-party system where campaigning is king, and governing an afterthought?

Ari Pinkus is a Monitor editor.

Young voters beat a path toward a politics of morals

Christian Science Monitor

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They’re part of the biggest generation to come along since the baby boomers. In sheer numbers, more of them voted in the last presidential election than any group of 18- to 24-year-olds since 1972.

And if politicians want to reach this fast-growing group of voters, their best approach might be a moral one.

The majority of college students view key political issues through a moral lens, according to a poll released Tuesday by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. That lens extends far beyond the three traditional hot-button issues: abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. It includes the federal government’s response to hurricane Katrina, education policy, and the Iraq war.

“If [politicians] are going to go after this demographic, it’s not just about the issues but about fairness and morality,” says David King, lecturer in public policy at Harvard, who supervised the survey. “And it’s not the same thing as talking about religion specifically. What I hope politicians will talk about is whether their policies are fundamentally just or unjust.”

One sizable bloc of college students, which the researchers dub the religious centrists, cares deeply about the moral direction of the country, supports universal healthcare, and opposes legalizing abortion. Observers are paying special attention to this ethnically diverse group, which participates in elections. They don’t fit into the standard liberal and conservative categories, and in 2004 they split nearly evenly for President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry.

“Whoever understands the religious center will do well in the 2008 general election,” says John Della Volpe, the pollster who conducted the survey of 1,200 college students.

Indeed, on an individual level, religion is an important part of students’ lives. Previous surveys have shown that Generation Y (those born between 1978 and 2002, according to the broadest definition) identify less with specific denominations than baby boomers did, but have a high interest in spirituality. The Harvard poll found that college students said they have become more spiritual since they started college. Collectively, the Sept. 11 terror attacks have shaped their political worldview. They are more focused on other people and many are involved in community and community service, says Mr. King.

More college students are voting, too. In 2004, more than 11 million 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots. That’s still small in terms of overall share – only 9 percent of all voters. But it represents the biggest jump in voter participation of any age group since the 2000 election, census figures show. In sheer numbers, it is the highest number of votes cast by that age cohort since 1972.

“People don’t fully realize what an important group this is,” Mr. Della Volpe says. “They go out of their way to cast absentee ballots and are a highly motivated and highly educated group of people.”

One of them is Harvard junior Krister Anderson, who serves as co-chair of the poll. Politically active, he maintains a personal profile on the website facebook.com that he has used for organizing. He describes himself as a Christian committed to social justice, environmental issues, and helping the poor. On traditional moral issues – abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research – he tends toward the liberal side of the spectrum, he says.

“I have a number of friends who are not overtly religious but have a sense of spirituality in their lives,” he adds. “It shapes their worldview in terms of how they think about policy.”

To reach this group of new voters, politicians need to cultivate a language of morality, some say. Mr. Anderson has ideas on how candidates can reach his generation.

“It’s not about how much money it’s going to cost to provide healthcare but that this country has a moral imperative to provide healthcare for people,” he says. Similarly, debate on the environment should not come down to a division between business and environmental groups but should center instead on the idea that a sustainable environment is crucial for the future.

“Democrats do not need to be afraid to talk about morality, because people see it in a broader context” on issues such as healthcare and education, says Della Volpe. For Republicans, they need to extend their focus of moral issues beyond abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research, he adds. “I don’t have as much advice for Republicans because they’ve been [talking about] morality so well.”

A group of Harvard undergraduates, the Institute of Politics, and Prime Group, a bipartisan consulting firm, conducted the interviews.

Among the poll’s key findings: For the third year in a row more than half of college students said they are concerned about the moral direction of the country. Fifty percent of college students say the government’s response to hurricane Katrina was a question of morality. About 4 in 10 say that education policy and Iraq war policy are moral questions. Democrats outnumber Republicans 52 percent to 35 in believing healthcare is a moral issue.

Religious centrists comprise 25 percent of college students. They are likely to be a key swing group in the 2008 election, the poll found. Among groups of college students, they have the largest numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics, and they strongly support universal healthcare and free trade, and are environmentally conscious.

While 7 of 10 college students believe that religion is important in their lives, Democrats and Republicans disagree on what role it should play in politics. Among Democrats, 54 percent say the influence of religion is increasing, and by a 2-to-1 margin they believe that is a bad thing. Among Republicans, 62 percent say that religion is losing its influence, and by a 7-to-1 margin they believe that is a bad thing.

Personal profiles on the Internet are likely to become an important campaign tool as the midterm elections and 2008 presidential election draw closer. Of the 76 percent of college students who have a facebook.com account, 14 percent have used it to promote a political candidate.

In a head-to-head matchup in the 2008 election, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain each received the support of 40 percent of college students. The other 20 percent remain undecided.