As U.S. Sen. Barack Obama embarks upon his quest for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 presidential race, this demographic may be the key to a successful campaign. The faces of children, students and 20-somethings who watched as Obama made the announcement of his political plans on a bitterly cold morning in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 10, 2007, expressed exuberance and excitement – proof that there may be hope in the posterity of our government.
“As soon as I found out about Obama coming to Springfield to announce his candidacy, I knew I had to go,” Lauren McFarden, a Bradley University student, said. “I felt like it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The fact that I saw the man who could be the first black president make a speech was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Capturing the enthusiasm and participation of younger voters in the United States continues to be a battle for politicians. In the 2004 presidential election, organizations such as MoveOn.org and PunkVoter.com aggressively tried to attract America’s young adults to the polls voting with disappointing results. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Nov. 3, 3004, the day after the election: “Recruited by cultural icons ranging from punk rock icons to hip-hop impresario Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, and fearing a military draft, young voters were courted as a serious swing bloc from early in the campaign. They flocked to Kerry campaign appearances by rock idol Bruce Springsteen in the last weeks of the campaign, and showed intense interest in a Bush-bashing video by hip-hop star Eminem that was on the Internet over the past week. Though research suggests the majority of this age group supported Democratic nominee John Kerry, their opinion failed to make an impact in the election results.”
Associated Press polls revealed that less than one in 10 voters in the 2004 election were 18 to 24 years old. So does Obama have what it takes to get the kids out and voting? Can he enliven this audience to issues in which they hold stock? Some believe the lack of previous turnout was due to political indifference.
“I think there really just was a huge amount of apathy in that targeted age group,” said Nicole Workoff, an intern for Twenty-First Century Democrats, a political action committee.
Though early into the campaign trail, Obama is generating buzz. “It’s still early, but we have received calls and a lot of e-mails about Sen. Obama,” said Mike Wessler, a staff member of Project Vote Smart, a political research organization. Obama’s own youthfulness and relatively short time in national politics appear to be compelling factors working in his favor with some potential voters.
At 45, he is the youngest candidate in the race. When he stood at the podium in Springfield and proclaimed, “I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” to which the crowd fired back with a boisterous “Good!” Obama continued, saying, “But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.” His limited experience with “the ways of Washington” appeal to the younger generation angered and dismayed by corrupt, divided politics.
“The thing I like most about Obama is how he feels that people must cast aside their political affiliations to make this country better,” McFaden said. “It’s the way he works with Republicans on bills and listens to what they have to say. I believe that the only way to a better country is through team work from both sides of the aisle.”
Mary Warren, a political science major at Southern Illinois University, feels that Obama exudes a certain sincerity that enables her to put full confidence behind his presidential run.
“I know all the candidates talk about changing Washington and many of the other platforms he stands on, but there is just something inspiring about him,” Warren said. “I actually believe him when he says those things…No, he doesn’t have the experience that some of the other candidates have, but is that a bad thing? He has not been jaded by the system. It may be cliché to point this out, but Lincoln had about the same amount of experience as Obama.”
But will the interest Obama is generating among students and younger voters prove immature and insubstantial, much like the media attention surrounding Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign or the MTV election specials? Experts disagree.
“I doubt that Obama’s “promises” will hold up very well in the long run,” said William S. Ballenger, Central Michigan University political science professor and a former Michigan state representative and senator. “They may be garnering him a base of support now from a lot of people, perhaps many of them young, who are naive and excessively idealistic about Obama’s being able to ‘make things happen’ in a new way that older, more experienced politicians can’t.”
Others support the promises and potential of Obama. Cal Jillson, associate dean for academic affairs and political science professor at Dedman College, an academic unit of Southern Methodist University, thinks the young senator merits the optimism and attention he is receiving.
“Barack Obama has made quite a splash during these early stages of the 2008 race. He clearly taps into the sense of the country that traditional partisan politics, especially as practiced in Washington, is too tired and distracted to solve the country’s most important problems,” Jillson said.
However, Jillson knows that this campaign is about much more than winning the young voters. It is about convincing Americans the government and the people possess the power of reinvention.
“The whole idea of planning to win an election based on the votes of those who don’t normally vote rarely works. If Barack Obama runs a strong race, or even wins, it will because he channels John Kennedy’s generational call to a new style of politics,” Jillson said.
Obama’s future hinges on his ability to materialize his idealistic visions. His words evoke hope, that “certain audacity,” he speaks of. But we need more than words. In this day and age, for my generation, seeing is believing. Action is how Obama will “Barack” the vote for young adults.
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