University and College Could Hold Keys to Power in the White Houselink to article
The Guardian - London
September 17, 2008
It is voter registration day on the campus of Kutztown university in Pennsylvania and a small but dogged group of students are trying to persuade classmates to sign up for the November presidential election. Decades ago they might have done so through bribery or, failing that, the fist; but these days the preferred method is humour.
"Voting is sexy and easy - register now!" says a poster on the wall, alongside a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey panel which students play blindfolded.
Ostensibly, the voter drive is non-partisan, but it is clear from flyers on the table this group backs Barack Obama. They are part of the Students4Obama movement that has swept through more than 700 campuses across America in a revival of youth engagement that could be decisive on polling day.
While the battle for the White House appears to be tightening, the campus remains one place where Obama can still expect overwhelming support. His dominance among young voters is clear in Kutztown, a state university that draws its students from across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Obama supporters in Kutztown are organised through a cyber club on the social-networking site Facebook, which boasts 957 members. They hold regular rallies and parties, hand out leaflets countering the negative ads put out by the McCain campaign, and gently browbeat their fellows into signing up to vote. "I believe Obama's genuine," says Erika Reinhard, 22, who devotes up to six hours a week on the campaign. "He promises to reunite the country, and that's what we need."
By contrast, there can be few positions in politics lonelier than that of the Republican student organiser. Zac Roberts, 21, is president of the Kutztown university body which boasts a membership of barely 30 out of 10,000 students and is thoroughly out-gunned by their Democratic rivals. Asked about the Republican Facebook group, he replies: "That's a good idea. I might set one up."
Such disparities are replicated among Pennsylvania's 780,000 student population, and in campuses throughout the US. It is highlighted by the work of Harvard University's Institute of Politics, which tracked the behaviour of young voters for the past eight years.
It shows that while John Kerry enjoyed a 13-point lead on George Bush among 18- to 24-year-olds at this stage in the 2004 election, Obama is 23 points ahead of John McCain. The institute's researchers have found exceptional levels this year of engagement among the young, with 62% of young voters reporting that they were excited about the election and more than two-thirds saying they were definitely, or probably, intending to vote.
It was not ever thus. When the Harvard project began in 2000, it found a mood among students that was apathetic, as reflected in a dismal turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds of 30% - well below the figure for all ages of 51%.
Then came 9/11, a catastrophe that changed everything, says John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard institute. "There was a massive change in attitude, especially among young people, towards politics being important in their lives."
The transformation was well under way before Obama hit the headlines. Della Volpe sees it as a profound generational shift among what many analysts call the "millennial generation" - those born in the 1980s and 90s and now reaching a political coming of age.
He points out that this generation accounts for a quarter of Americans and is the largest in history - bigger, even, than the baby boomers. As such, Della Volpe is convinced it is large enough and enthusiastic enough to hold the balance of power in November.
Peter Levine, who heads Circle, a nonpartisan research body at Tufts university that studies political engagement among young voters, traces the shift to a growing optimism. The deep distrust in politicians found among the so-called Generation X of the mid-60s and 70s, and their pessimism in their ability to influence affairs, has given way to renewed faith in politics as a force for good. Levine says: "That makes them more motivated to support a candidate, as otherwise why bother? And it also has a fit with Obama, as he stands for making things better."
Though the generational shift predated him, Obama has expropriated it as his own. Not only is his message of hope tailored to attract the young, but he has also constructed a campaign that talks their language.
Howard Dean set a precedent in this regard with his primary run in 2004, in which he launched Meetup, an online campaign that drove thousands of first-time voters into his camp. The Obama campaign has built on that experience directly - its new-media director, Joe Rospars, cut his political teeth with the Dean campaign.
Facebook tells the story. As of last night, Obama had 1,847,187 Facebook friends. McCain had 335,528. On top of that, the campaign has created platforms across numerous internet-networking sites, from Twitter to Faithbase and BlackPlanet. The beauty of the approach is that it is bottom up rather than top down, allowing young people to run their own Obama-supporting groups unfettered by central control.
The technique has unleashed huge energy in the process at relatively little cost. Studies have shown that while it costs $60 to mobilise one voter through direct mail, and $30 through phone banking, it costs only $1.56 through cyberspace tools such as social networking sites, text-messaging and email.
The impact was visible in the primaries and caucuses, where 7 million voters under 30 turned out, helping to trounce the hopes of Hillary Clinton by voting for Obama in a ratio of four to one. The impact is also visible in Kutztown, where the student Obama group stages events with only minimal contact with the official Democratic campaign.
It's not an entirely painless business, nor one devoid of anxiety. Erika Reinhard says she has found it harder since the summer break to get other students "fired up", as Obama would put it, about his candidacy. A sense of urgency has dissipated which the group is scrambling to reignite. "A lot of people are supporting Obama, but I'm not sure they will make it to the polling booth."
Her anxieties have some grounding. According to Circle, young people aged 18 to 29 are the most likely group to remain undecided about their voting intentions until election day.
But the degree of jitters that remains on Obama's side is insufficient to cheer up Zac Roberts as he contemplates electoral oblivion for McCain, at least on this campus. "Students are getting politically engaged again," he says mournfully. "Young people don't understand what they are talking about, and I would rather they just didn't get involved."
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
College Student Vote Has Control of Election- if it wants to