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opinion

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has spoken at McGill University and the University of British Columbia in recent weeks. The choice of these locations was not an accident.

If the Liberals are to improve their standing in the scheduled October election, let alone contend to form a government, they have to charge up young Canadians to vote.

Getting Canadians in the 18-to-30 group to the ballot box has proven quite difficult. Young people are turned off by partisan politics. Lower overall voter turnouts in recent elections are largely explained by the precipitous decline in voting among the young. That's bad news for the Liberals and great news for the Conservatives.

Pollster after pollster has confirmed that the Liberals do better than the other main parties among the young, whereas Conservatives do best among the over-65 set. Since a much higher share of older Canadians than younger ones vote, this gives the Conservatives a big advantage. The future belongs to the young, but the present belongs to the old.

Pollster Angus Reid's latest survey on the matter gives the Liberals 34 per cent of voters in the 18-34 age category, compared to 29 per cent for the New Democrats and just 22 per cent for the Conservatives. Among over-55 voters, the Conservatives lead the Liberals 38 to 32 per cent, with the NDP at 22.

Ipsos Reid has the Liberals seven points ahead of the Conservatives among 18-34-year-olds, but the Conservatives lead by four points among voters over 55. Nanos Research's "Party Power Index," which blends voting intentions and prime ministerial preferences, shows the Liberals ahead among 18-to-29-year-olds but trailing among those over 60.

An instructive, albeit small, poll of two Conservative-held ridings (Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette and Brandon-Souris) by Probe Research in Winnipeg found the Liberals ahead by 17 points among 18-34-year-olds, whereas the Conservatives led by 12 points among those over 55.

Getting young people to vote has long flummoxed political parties (especially the Liberals and New Democrats), civic-society activists and political scientists. Mr. Trudeau needs to solve the puzzle.

Younger voters don't see voting as a civic "duty," the way many of their elders do. Perhaps they don't yet have a "stake" in society, and so feel government to be not terribly important. They get their information from nontraditional sources, which are hard to penetrate with political messages.

If some young people are interested in politics, in the widest sense of the word, they may express it by supporting particular causes. Or they may be too wrapped up in their studies or early careers to worry much about the faraway and abstract stuff of politics.

The Liberals have the youngest leader of the three big main parties. In theory, Mr. Trudeau ought to be more attuned to young voters than the other leaders. Whether he can actually motivate young people to vote will be a major challenge for him and his party.

Mr. Trudeau's university speaking engagements make sense for another reason. Liberal supporters have much more formal education than Conservative supporters. Put crudely, the more formal education a voter has, the more likely he or (especially) she will be to vote Liberal.

For example, the latest Ipsos Reid poll has the Liberals leading the Conservatives by 41 to 29 per cent among those with a university education, but trailing 36 to 23 per cent among those with less than a high-school diploma. In the Probe Research survey, Liberals led by 10 points (45 to 35 per cent) among those who had attended university, but trailed by a whopping 37 points (57 to 22 per cent) among those who did not finish high school. Other polls show the same pattern.

Those with university education, especially professional school training, tend to be among the business and intellectual leaders in any society. By income, status and responsibility – and ability to be heard publicly – they are society's "elites."

Attacking those "elites" is a staple of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Polling numbers show why: Fewer of these "elites" favour the Conservatives than the Liberals. Attacking "elites" holds few risks and offers an appeal to the Conservative base, which skews much older and has less formal education. The resulting political divide is a conflict more of culture than of class.