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Young voters could be key in Salt Lake County Council race

SALT LAKE CITY — For Holly Mullen, a successful transition from journalist to political office holder may be in the hands of young voters.

Mullen, a Democrat and longtime Utah journalist, trails Republican Richard Snelgove by 10 percentage points — 46 percent to 36 percent — in the race for the open at-large seat on the Salt Lake County Council, according to a poll conducted this week by Dan Jones & Associates.

But of the 451 county residents polled, 65 percent were age 50 or older — a demographic more likely to lean conservative.

While acknowledging the relatively low number of young voters represented in the poll, Dan Jones said he expects to see fewer young people voting Tuesday than in previous elections.

Many young people won't be voting, he predicted, because they feel they've been "let down" by President Barack Obama and other leaders they previously were excited about at the federal, state and local levels.

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said voters of all ages are affected by the "enthusiasm gap" — when one party seems to be more energized than the other prior to an election.

"In 2006 and 2008, it was Republicans who were discouraged and Democrats were highly motivated," Jowers said. "That's flipped in 2010. Young people will follow those trends. The more liberal students are little more disenchanted, whereas the more conservative students are more fired up."

In recent years, young voters' political ideologies tended to lean moderate to liberal, he said, though that might be changing.

"During the Clinton and Bush presidencies and Obama campaign, we saw a sizable migration of young people to more moderate and liberal positions," he said. "There appear to be reports that there is a shifting to a more conservative votes by young people, just as with the rest of the country right now."

If that proves to be true, Tuesday could be a night of celebration at the Snelgrove house. Snelgrove's daughter, Kylee Snelgrove, is part of his campaign team and a member of the Associated Students of the University of Utah Assembly.

"Many young activists have been largely responsible for this lead we're enjoying right now," said Richard Snelgrove, 54.

Numbers from the recent poll show that Mullen has strong support from voters under 30.

"If the young people will turn out, that will help Holly Mullen," Jones said.

Mullen, 52, said she believes her campaign has focused on several issues important to young people — including clean air and transit.

A little more than 51,000 people ride the Utah Transit Authority's light-rail system, TRAX, every weekday, according to UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter. And another 5,400 use the FrontRunner commuter-rail line each weekday.

"I've tried to reach out to that group because I really do feel I'm the much more progressive person on mass transit, funding and implementation of good transit planning," Mullen said.

A recent mailer from Mullen's campaign focuses on the importance of transit, noting its ability to ease traffic congestion and reduce air pollution while pumping money into local economies. She also called out Snelgrove for being "a longtime opponent of mass transit." She cited a comment Snelgrove allegedly made to the Salt Lake Tribune's editorial board that he wished "UTA had stuck with buses."

"That is a pocketbook issue, and it's a clean air issue," Mullen said. "It should be attractive to everyone, but especially to younger people."

Snelgrove clarified his position in an interview with the Deseret News on Friday, saying he expects "better results from UTA."

"(UTA's) results in terms of ridership have been less than stellar," he said. "A build-it-and-they-will-come-type of approach doesn't always work. All options need to be considered to boost ridership because mass transit is important."

Snelgrove also said he believes his message of being "thrifty and frugal" resonates with voters of all ages.

No matter which — if any — political party benefits from young voters all starts with getting young people to the polls Tuesday.

Jowers recently wrote an opinion piece in the U. campus newspaper encouraging students to vote and reminding them that every election matters — even if it's a perceived blowout.

"Young people may look at voting more as, 'What's the point?' If they get the point, they will vote. If they don't, they may not be quite as beholden to the civic duty idea that people seem to have as they mature," he said.