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Generation next (continued)

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The conservative Leadership Institute, on the other hand, has spent 23 years and millions of dollars developing those services. On its Web site, the Arlington, Virginia–based institute says its mission is "to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in the public policy process." The organization offers courses in areas like broadcast journalism, campus elections, or Internet activism, taught by activists like Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and Republican senator Mitch McConnell. "[Conservatives] developed this when their back was against the wall," Zipper says. "We’ve never had our back against the wall until now." But today, it’s "readily apparent how much ground we’ve lost."

One of the ways liberals hope to regain that ground is by following the conservative model of running and financially supporting candidates in local races. The Campaign for a National Majority (CNM), spearheaded by Harvard Law School students Michael Fertik and Daniel Richenthal, aims to accomplish just that — with the added bonus of involving young people in the process. The group began about a year and a half ago, when Fertik, 25, and Richenthal, 27, recognized the absence of Democratic efforts to reach out to young, professional liberals. When they tapped into their contacts from college, work, and law school, they ended up with a list of people in their 20s and 30s who wanted to get involved but didn’t have the time to research candidates or the money to feel they were making a real difference. So, Fertik says, he and Richenthal decided to "find out where they can have impact with that smaller amount of money" — a message reminiscent of Howard Dean’s "$100 revolution."

As a result, they’ve chosen two 2004 elections, one in Texas and one in Iowa, where they think fundraising help will make the most difference. Fertik estimates that CNM will raise several thousand dollars in bundled contributions from its young donors to disperse to the two candidates — David Leibowitz in Texas and Jeff Danielson in Iowa. Like the conservative Club for Growth, which advises potential donors on which candidates to support, CNM eliminates the time-consuming task of identifying where dollars can have the greatest impact. In 2006, Fertik hopes to raise $10,000; the goal is "not to get too big too fast" because "the way to be the most effective is to pick a limited number of candidates each time," and no race is too minor. With any luck, candidates who win will move up the pipeline to bigger things. "On both sides of the aisle, a lot of rising stars start at the state level," says Richenthal. Helping a candidate win a municipal election might not be that glamorous, Fertik admits, but "it’ll be sexy" as soon as that candidate decides to run for governor or Congress and helps tip the power scale back toward Democrats.

It’s easy to see how these new organizations fit together in a long-term pattern: in a few years, one could imagine candidates that have gone through leadership training at the Center for Progressive Leadership getting financial backing from the Campaign for a National Majority. The New Democrat Network and 21st Century Democrats have similar candidate-endorsement programs, while 2020 Democrats, a one-year-old group formed as a vehicle for young people to discuss and influence long-term party policies, is working to involve and promote new thinkers in the party. And that’s not counting the many nonpartisan organizations aimed at increasing political participation. "The whole point is to bring in new people," Fertik says of the smorgasbord of organizations. "We’re not staking out turf." Young, of 21st Century Democrats, agrees: "There really has been unprecedented levels of cooperation."

THESE EFFORTS are complemented by updated voter-mobilization campaigns created to address a variety of concerns. When people start to vote, they tend to think of themselves as members of the party they vote for, Trippi points out. "These people are going to be involved for a long time." So it makes sense that several groups are starting to think creatively about reaching out to young voters. It makes even more sense when you look at statistics: according to the US Census Bureau, only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds and 50 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds voted in the last presidential election — the two worst showings among all demographic groups.

To counteract this trend, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party, the Young Democrats of America (YDA), is using a combination of strategies to reach as many people as possible. For less political voters, it holds club nights where DJs talk about issues and candidates; in swing states (YDA is focusing on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Wisconsin), it’s joined five other organizations to form the Youth Voter Alliance. All these groups concentrate their resources on increasing youth registration and turnout.

However, even the YDA admits that its party has somewhat neglected the youth element. "We’re definitely far behind," admits Jane Fleming, the group’s spokesman. The disparity has ranged from mentoring to fundraising — in 2002, the College Republicans had $4 million to spend on mobilization, compared to the YDA’s $1 million.

"There’s a mix of science and strategy," says Young. She emphasizes the "less sexy part of the process" (her organization makes sure to maintain contact with people in the period between registration and Election Day) that feeds into the rest of the pipeline — those who vote are more likely to become active in politics, and then to run for office, and so on. "It’s a winning strategy," she says, noting that the Republicans’ 1994 congressional takeover was really the result of grassroots efforts reaching back 15 years.

"We have the patience to watch change unfold over a long period of time," says Josh Green, co-founder of 2020 Democrats. The challenge of revitalizing the party, then, will be not just to make use of all new resources, both human and technological — youth energy, organizations, and the Internet — but also to dominate them, particularly the latter, to disseminate the Democratic message and bring more people into the fold. And there’s no one better positioned to do so than young people — it’s "their tool, their language," says Trippi.

"There’s no question we have to build it," Rosenberg says of the party’s overall structure. "I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like in 10 to 15 years." But if things continue on their current trajectory, the party’s horizon should stretch ever farther.

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at deirdre_fulton@yahoo.com

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Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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