Obama and the youth vote
- August 27, 2008
- Q&A with Russell Dalton, political science professor and author of The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping Politics
Barack Obama's campaign has mobilized voters under 30, a group often disregarded by
political candidates due to traditionally low turnout at the polls. What is it about
Obama that appeals so much to young voters? Is there anything John McCain can do to
gain more appeal among young people? Dalton provides his thoughts on these issues
Q. What about Barack Obama's candidacy appeals so much to young people?
A. There are two sources of Obama's appeal to many young Americans. First, he speaks to the concerns of young people and their aspirations. In addition to the traditional bread-and-butter issues, Obama talks about the crisis in Darfur, the war in Iraq, global warming and the environment; and how college expenses are too high, and the idea of allowing students to repay their grants with community service. Past campaigns often did not discuss issues of interest to the young because they presumed the young would not vote. Obama showed that a different appeal could bring youth to the polls.
Second, the Obama campaign pursued a revolutionary new strategy in mobilizing youth. The campaign used youth-oriented events to build up a database of young people who were interested in the campaign. Tickets to early Obama rallies often involved providing e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers, so the campaign could connect to these people later. In many primary states, the organization began at the high school level, with local "Barackstars" groups formed to bring supporters together. The Obama campaign created a campaign social networking site (MyBO) where young people could communicate, plan their own activities and become involved in the campaign. Then, when the primary day approached, they merged this campaign with old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing.
Q. What are some things John McCain should start doing in order to win over young voters?
A. Buy a Blackberry and an iPod (laughs). Candidates inevitably reflect different constituencies, and McCain's base is older voters. The latest LA Times poll had young people leaning toward Obama by about the same margin that seniors lean toward McCain. It would be difficult for a 72-year-old candidate with McCain's credentials to make significant inroads among Democratic and Independent youth. He would be more successful attempting to target older Democratic and Independent voters to crossover.
Q. How are young people changing the idea of what it means to be a good citizen, as far as their positions on social issues and involvement in community life?
A. The Millennial generation (the generation that came of age in the 21st century) is the best educated, most cosmopolitan, most tolerant, and most socially concerned generation in modern American history. Their values are very different from senior Americans, who have many positive features but a distinctly different view of politics. Obama's campaign tapped into this potential among the young, and the result was a surge in youth participation and his victory as the Democratic nominee for president.
Q. Could young people end up picking the next president?
A. Sometimes we overestimate the impact of any one group in deciding an election, because the entire electorate decides the outcome and not any one group. What is distinctive about 2008 is the potential for the Obama campaign to reshape the electorate. Youth turnout was up dramatically in the primaries, especially in the Democratic primaries, as well as turnout among African Americans. If millions more people vote in 2008 than 2004, the new voters should disproportionately benefit Obama - if he can retain the support of traditional Democratic voters.
Q. Barack Obama has really embraced technology. How do you think this will affect future campaigns?
A. The Obama campaign both developed the new technologies of campaigning in the Internet era and merged these with the traditional grassroots campaigning of the past. The Howard Dean campaign began the former, but not with the success of the Obama campaign and without the fusion with traditional campaigning. Certainly almost every political consultant sees the Obama campaign as a potential model for the future. The ability to raise funds from a large and diverse group of donors can transform the financial side of campaigning. Obama's ability to out-fundraise the Clinton campaign will be a textbook model for the future. The Obama campaign also demonstrated the networking potential of the Internet. All this is appealing to future candidates. Yet, Obama also was successful because of the distinct nature of his campaign. Social networking sites were a benefit, because he appeals to young people who use these sites and are tech savvy. Young people also had the energy, time and enthusiasm to participate in ways that went beyond the typical voter. For instance, the Clinton campaign did not use these methods, in part because they mistakenly thought they didn't need to, and because they would have been less successful for Clinton's core voters. The same applies to McCain in the general election.
These methods will have a great impact on future campaigns, but the impact will be uneven. Overall, these are distinctly positive developments for democracy. They give people more voice, more access and more opportunities to participate. These are the long-awaited democratizing effects of the Internet. The only caution is that a technology-oriented campaign may leave some voters behind, and this is where the blending of old/new campaign styles is important.
To view video of Russell Dalton discussing Obama's appeal to young voters, visit www.uci.edu/experts/video_news.php?
Link to campus story: http://today.uci.edu/Features/profile_detail.asp?key=379
--Laura Rico, University Communications