Reagan is the key.
The President plans to meet with groups of high school and college students about once a week for at least the next two months to maintain his special relationship with them and to preach his conservative philosophy. On May 13, for example, he met at the White House with a group of high school seniors
from North Carolina, and last week he met with another group of students in a session that was televised live to high schools across the country.
"In our lifetimes, there are not many political realignments, but in the last four years there has been a massive change in the political chessboard," says Richard Wirthlin, a Republican pollster who conducts surveys regularly for the Reagan White House. "Whether the change endures or not is still
During Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984, it was widely reported that young voters constituted one of the President's most solid blocs of supporters. And recent polling by Wirthlin suggests that Reagan's following among that group is even higher today.
In 1984, according to a Wirthlin poll, voters under age 25 approved of Reagan by a ratio of 67 percent to 31 percent. In April 1986, according to a new Wirthlin poll, that group approved of Reagan's performance by a ratio of 79 percent to 20 percent.
Wirthlin's surveys also found that the rise in Reagan's personal popularity with young people has had a proportionate benefit for his party. In a 1984 survey, 45 percent of young voters identified with the Republican Party and 43 percent with the Democratic Party. In the April survey, 48 percent identified with the Republicans and 34 percent identified with the Democrats. Before the Reagan presidency, by contrast, surveys for 30 years consistently showed young voters identifying with the Democratic Party over the Republicans by ratios of about 2 to 1.
"Young voters are now the strongest pro-Republican group in the electorate," says Robert Teeter, a GOP pollster based in Detroit. "They have come into adulthood at a time when the Republican Party has put in a very good performance and is very appealing."
Wirthlin notes, "First-time voters ushered in the Democratic as the national party because new voters favored the New Deal. But in 1984, we got a solid majority of the 24-and-under vote."
Although Wirthlin is encouraged that so many new voters - an estimated 63 percent - cast their first ballot for a Republican president in 1984, he concedes that one vote does not a Republican make.
But if these voters go Republican again in the fall congressional elections, he adds, they are more likely to have a lifelong identification with the GOP. Such a shift could bring the party into power at the state and local levels, where the Democrats are most entrenched. "You can't talk about realignment until you get control of the statehouses," Wirthlin says.
Democratic Party officials and pollsters concur that Reagan is extraordinarily popular with young people, but they see no evidence that a strong personal affinity for the President is being transferred to the Republican Party.
Harrison Hickman, who conducts survey research for Democratic candidates, contends that Reagan's personal appeal will have no lasting benefit for the Republican Party.
"Ronald Reagan is the national grandfather, and people expect him to play with his grandchildren occasionally," Hickman says. "But Reagan has no political coattails anymore."
Hickman notes that Reagan's support among young people does not extend to blacks, 90 percent of whom continue to identify with the Democratic Party. He also contends that young whites like Reagan's personality but strongly disagree with most of his domestic and foreign policies. As a result, Hickman predicts that the Republicans could have real trouble holding onto these supporters after Reagan departs.
Terry Michael, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, says GOP
gains among young people have concerned the Democrats enough to respond with their own youth-oriented programs.
"Clearly, there are a lot of young people who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984, but by no means have the Repubicans captured them," he says. "This November will be the first test of whether supporters of Ronald Reagan go down the ticket and vote Republican. We don't see an alarmist trend."
Reagan's White House advisers acknowledge that the President may be unable to transfer his popularity with young voters to his party, but say that it certainly is worth trying for both political and personal reasons.
Patrick J. Buchanan, White House communications director, says that apart
from a desire to establish "a conservative dynasty," Reagan is fond of doing question-and-answer sessions with young people.
"We're working with various formats and testing them out, and when we come to the ideal one, we may do it on a more regular basis," Buchanan says. ''It's something the President likes. He has great rapport with young people."
Dennis Thomas, another senior presidential assistant, says that the administration is trying to "redefine the role of government" and that young people may be the most receptive to Reagan's philosophy of less government involvement.
"If we can achieve a national philosophy that is more in line with Ronald Reagan's view of the world, then we'll have a continuing and a more permanent legacy," Thomas says. "That's the purpose of what we're trying to do with young people."