caption="Students cheer as Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Colorado State University on Sunday. " width=292 height=320]
Author, "Voting with Our Pants Down"
I beg your pardon?
I was a college student when I first read his name in an email in July 2004. I thought the sender had either accidentally scrambled his fingers across the keyboard or that Barack's name was some sort of MENSA puzzle.
Today, Barack Obama is a political leviathan. And young voters are one of his critical electoral constituencies. There are nearly 44 million of us with the power to adjudicate the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. A USA Today/MTV/Gallup poll not long ago gave Obama a 29 point lead among 18- to 29-year-olds (other more recent polls have suggested an even bigger lead). If this holds, it could be what Susan Page of USA Today called "the most lopsided contest within an age group in modern times." So, why do young people so overwhelming support Barack Obama?
Young voters tend to lean left. This doesn't mean that we all do, and doesn't mean we all have in the past, or will in the future, but for now this works in Obama's favor. However, because we tend to be less ideological than other voting blocs, so this partisan influence is limited. There's more to it than that.
While we are issue savvy, we tend to identify with campaigns that offer an overarching message such as change, hope, or reform. Why? In part because we extrapolate a character assessment from the merit and presentation of the campaign theme. To a degree, we're also skeptical about whether or not any politician will follow through on specific campaign promises. And if the specifics can't be counted on, the campaign's broader theme and ambiance become more relevant. And the perception among young voters is that Obama has been more effective in articulating a broad, themed narrative.
The themes Obama chose, "Change" and "Hope," in addition to providing a framework though which to interpret policy minutiae, appeal to our optimism. Keep in mind the relative economic prosperity and peace of our childhood, our nurturing and protective parents, and the widely held idea that "if you dream it, you can be it." That idea is so woven into our thinking that it has become instinctive to respond to it as political message.
But that's hardly the full picture, either. We are - as Stephen Colbert said of himself - colorblind, the most colorblind generation in U.S. history. Nearly 40 percent of us are minority. A full 94 percent are comfortable with interracial marriage. Fewer than 65 percent in all other age demographics felt similarly. So relative to other voting blocs, we're much less likely to be influenced negatively by the fact that Obama is half-black and half-white.
In fact, I believe Obama's race is an advantage among young voters. Remember we are the "Babies on Board," "Everyone Is Special" generation, which has instilled in us not only the belief that we can, but also the desire to, affect the world for the better. For many young voters, this election offers an opportunity to play an active role in breaking what had previously been a longstanding glass ceiling for African Americans in politics, and therefore a chance to help move the country beyond the racial injustices of the past, and in a way make the world a more tolerant place.
The world. Does that have something to do with it too?
Absolutely! Cliché or not, it's smaller and flatter for us than it was for our parents. Nearly 56 percent of us have passports. Many of us have traveled and/or studied abroad. More than other voting blocs, we have family and friends from or living in other countries. We're connected globally in a way that no other generation in its youth has been. In some respects we have more in common with members of our age-group globally than we do with members of older demographics domestically. As a consequence, the fact that Obama is so well regarded internationally also makes him a strong candidate in our minds, perhaps more again than for any other age demographic.
On the domestic side, Obama was the first modern candidate to actively seek small donations of $5, $10, and $15 on a major scale. As debt-ridden college students and workplace newbies, we can give $5 where we can't afford to contribute $2,000. What happens once we buy into a campaign, as with any capitalistic enterprise, is that we take ownership of it. That not only encourages us to turn out but also incentivizes us to volunteer, either officially by door knocking, phone banking, and sign posting, or unofficially by creating FaceBook profile pages, emailing compelling story and video links such as the "Yes, We Can" compilation by Black Eyed Peas front man, Will I Am ‑- it's been viewed over 15 million times on YouTube ‑- or by texting friends to encourage them to cast ballots. This last point is critical, because research suggests that nothing is more likely to turn out a young voter than being asked to vote by another young voter. And Obama might have the strongest following of young staffers and volunteers of any candidate in recent history.
It's true many of us do support McCain, and to imply we universally support Obama would be unfair to - and in a way disenfranchise - the millions of us who don't. Still, the reality of this election is that a margin of 29% is exceptional even for young voters and has to involve not just the reasons above but at least a dozen others.
I read a story by Margot Kidder in my hometown paper, The Livingston (Montana) Weekly, which I believe captures the heart of the relationship between Obama and his young voter supporters. It happened in April at an Obama rally in the state. Before the event officially began, in plain view of everyone in attendance that cool evening, a bigot of a man held up a sign that read, "America without N*****s." As quickly as he did, two high school students moved in front of him with an even bigger sign that read, "HOPE." The racist, clearly annoyed they were hiding his message, repositioned himself again in full view of the crowd. With calm determination the students followed and covered his sign again with theirs. The scene replayed over and over, each time, "HOPE" triumphing over "HATE."
Sometimes even the simplified themes and symbols are rooted in reality.