Obama Rides the Youth Vote

The charismatic senator from Illinois captures the imagination of young voters, but will they be enough to tip Democratic primary scales?

By Stephen Markley


Erik Smith is a 24-year-old Chicago-based political consultant, who after working on an alderman campaign on the opposite side of a Daley, tried to milk his connections for a position on the presidential campaign of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as he made his unprecedented bid for the White House on the tails of his own rising star.

“It didn’t work out,” says Smith. “It turned out everyone my age in Chicago was pretty much willing to work for free.”

Smith does, however, have one anecdote that proves a sturdy beginning point for launching any hypothesis of young Democratic voters. “I had a good friend who volunteered for his campaign over the summer, and I’ll never forget what she said to me after the first few days she worked there,” Smith recalls. “She said, ‘I don’t know if this is wrong, but I want to have sex with pretty much everyone in that office. Male or female.’”

As Hillary Clinton attempts to solidify her path to the nomination through the sheer force of her own perceived inevitability and Obama remains stranded in a distant second in national polls, the one bastion of support that has stuck to the young, yet-to-serve-a-full-term senator is the youth vote. Voters between the ages of 18 and 24 prove to be the most reliable Obama supporters, choosing him over Clinton by a margin of seven percentage points, according to a Harvard poll conducted in the spring of 2007. Among 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled in college, his lead grows 41% versus 24% who support Clinton. Too bad for Obama, this may not be such a good sign.

Here in Obama’s backyard of Chicago, local support remains firmly in his grip. You need only talk to a random smattering of supporters to see that the flame has not dimmed for Obama despite what some might call a floundering campaign.

“I was looking forward to his candidacy well before he announced in Springfield,” said Ira Kantz, a 26-year-old law clerk. “Maybe I’ve wavered in the last few months … I was definitely excited to hear some of the things Hillary Clinton had to say but not enough to change my vote.”

“He represents possibility,” said Lindsey Barlag, a 23-year-old actress. “I think a lot of people in this country genuinely want someone who can work with people he doesn’t necessarily agree with on every issue.”

What is Obama’s attraction to the young voter? Molly Andolina, a professor of political science at DePaul University in Lincoln Park, studies the politics of the so-called DotCom generation. In a project funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, Andolina and a bevy of other interested political scientists have dissected the civic engagement, voting habits, and public voice of those citizens born after 1977.

Andolina suggests that the jumping-off point may be Obama’s youth. “A young candidate will always capture the imagination of the young,” she said. “Then take the fact that Obama is well-placed on the particular issues that matter to young voters — and here I’m talking principally about Iraq and Darfur, which in polls they cite as their major foreign policy concerns. He’s in a good position to appeal to them.”

Andolina says Obama is nearly a perfect storm of change for a generation that has come of age knowing only two names in the White House. From his race to his idealism, his positions to his rhetoric, conventional wisdom is not wrong that Obama is the single most exciting mainstream candidate to emerge in a long time.

While Obama certainly has done his best to capture that youth support — from beginning his own Facebook-type networking service on his website, to recruiting veritable hordes of college-age volunteers — Obama’s support among the young may not be entirely attributable to him. Some of it may have to do with the direction of the youth. “It has always been a myth,” says Andolina, “that young voters are more likely to be liberal or vote Democratic, but with this generation we found out that it’s actually true.”

Among Andolina and her associates’ additional findings about the only age group that John Kerry carried in the 2004 election: While they are no more likely to be pro-choice than their parents, they are more tolerant when it comes to homosexuals and immigrants. They are more enthusiastic of big government programs, more concerned about the environment, and less concerned about the economic impact of environmental legislation. The myth, it turns out, is now a statistical reality.

“It probably has to do with how we came of age,” said Barlag. “9/11, the war, the way gay marriage was exploited by conservatives in 2004. It all adds up, and I know it’s had an effect on me at least.”

This key element of support, however, may not bode well for Obama. Young people, despite their increasing participation in the realm of public voice (characterized as speaking out, protesting, writing letters, blogging, and other forms of vocal participation in the public sphere) and civic engagement (characterized by volunteerism and public service), they remain curiously stunted when it comes to the most important aspect of civic engagement: Voting.

According to an article in the New York Times on a similar topic, young voters made up the same chunk of the electorate in 2004 as they did in 2000, despite familiar claims that they would “rock the vote” and sway the election one way or the other. Young voters are notorious for their lack of interest in electoral politics, making the overtures of nearly every “youth” candidate since Eugene McCarthy not only terminally frustrating but ultimately a waste of time. While presidential elections could conceivably be won on the heels of a furious, barnstorming youth, it never is, and that is simply political reality.

All this brings up another troubling point for the Obama campaign. While it is always interesting to see which pre-scripted niche candidates will occupy, this Democratic primary has taken a particularly glib turn. Clinton versus Obama, Experience versus Change. These are storylines familiar to even the most casual follower of politics. However, the more important distinction may be Mainstream Candidate versus Elite Candidate.

Despite the radical nature of his campaign (due almost entirely to his race), Obama occupies the familiar Democratic territory trailblazed by the likes of Eugene McCarthy, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean, to name a few. He is not only the candidate of the young but the elite. Clinton and Edwards tend to be favored by working-class Democrats. Even among African-Americans, Obama lags Clinton in the polls, especially among African-American women. In debates, Obama’s answers trend toward the complex. His responses are cerebral, not necessarily good characteristics for presidential candidates (witness Al Gore). Given the primary fates of McCarthy, Bradley, Dean and the original egghead, Adlai Stevenson, the prospects for Obama do not look bright.

Further adding to the muddle is the general perception that the Illinois senator is no longer exciting. DePaul student John Wilson, 22, cast an enthusiastic vote during Obama’s 2004 campaign for his Senate seat but has been disappointed by his presidential run. “I’m just not hearing the same kinds of ideas,” he said. “I don’t feel excited about him anymore. Maybe that’s just because the message isn’t getting out as effectively as it should be, but I have not been impressed.”

Why has the luster worn off? Partly it could be due to the typical catfights of primary politics. It must be hard to maintain an idealized slogan like “the politics of change” when the media consistently compares each and every policy dispute with Clinton as a “slugfest” or “deathmatch”.

Additionally, Obama is now in the hands of veteran political handlers who are charged with smoothing the roughest edges but may have shaved away the boldness and candor that made Obama enticing originally. The Progressive Populist requested interviews with some of the younger staff members working out of the Chicago office and was denied without any stated reason. One wonders if it had to do with the publication’s progressive editorial stance, which seems an odd reason for a Democratic campaign to shy away until you look through the goggles of a timid, knee-jerk party hack. That such a crowd may have found its way onto the Obama campaign does not seem out of the question.

“I think he’s genuinely a guy who does not care so much about appealing to the margins as he does the core of Americans,” said Smith. “But then again, that’s the way politics works. It all has to be managed.”

Ultimately, most of these questions will be answered. Obama may have one advantage factoring in for him, which is the overconfidence of the Clinton campaign. Watching the most recent Democratic debate, there is an almost palpable sense that Hillary has stopped campaigning for the nomination and begun campaigning for the general election. Her guarded answers to questions about social security and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants betrayed her eagerness to jump to the convention this summer in Denver.

With plenty of money in the bank and a solid ground team in Iowa where his poll numbers run neck-and-neck with Clinton’s, Obama has more than just an outside chance of upsetting the presumptive nominee.

“It all comes down to Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Katz. “If he loses both of those, it’s probably over, but I think he has a good shot at pulling off an upset. I’m even thinking of heading down to Iowa to do some volunteer work.”

Katz’s sentiment may be indicative of how many young voters feel. Where some Democrats may salivate at the thought of a return to the swinging Clintonian ’90s, many in the DotCom generation desperately want — to borrow an Obama talking point — to turn the page. Whether or not they can help their preferred candidate do this is another matter entirely.

“It’s there for him if he wants it,” says Smith. “They’re out polling likely caucus-goers in Iowa, so that’s all old people. If Barack gets that young vote to turn out for him, including all the high schoolers who’ll be eighteen during the general election, and you might just see that youth vote be the margin of victory.”

Stephen Markley is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Check www.stephenmarkley.com.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2007

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