October 27th, 2008
01:21 PM ET

Obama's youth vote – not what you think

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/27/obama.youth.jpg
caption="Students cheer as Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Colorado State University on Sunday. " width=292 height=320]

Rob Grabow
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.


Filed under: 2008 Election • Barack Obama • Raw Politics
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Mike, Lake Worth, FL.

    How can anyone can KNOW what young people think or what they will do. The rules have changed. Voters young, middle aged and old are fed up with last 8 years of a failed administration. To say this election will be no different is being in denial. All you have to do is look at the early voting crowds. Does anyone think all these voters are flocking to the polls for McCain. Yea right.

    October 28, 2008 at 6:33 am |
  2. Harris

    Very instructive to the world what the "Audacity of Hope" really means.
    These young ones have dared to make a change.

    October 28, 2008 at 2:56 am |
  3. nancy erickson

    I think that Sen. Obama went to the effort to reach our youth in whichever way they would respond to.
    It is our youth that are sent to war, our youth that will have difficulties buying their first home, our young generation is going to feel the hit of the past eight years mess.While my retirement account may be shot or I may be taxed more, how are you going to afford health care that we have enjoyed in our generation? How will your children be safe like, you were unless the wars are stopped. I think the youth being on board is vital to our future and Sen. Obama has the foresight to know that they are much more than a vote

    October 28, 2008 at 12:00 am |
  4. Dean - Alabama

    I think it’s a great point that 'ownership' incentivizes a person to see what they invested into succeed. The Obama campaign has further as Mr. Grabow stated, recognized the cheap and phenomenally effective communication mediums that exist between young voters. I completely agree that this has been an incredibly effective way to increase voter interest. But I think it also highlights a frustrating, if not alarming, fact of young voters. They too, like other groups, can be bought.

    Mr. Grabow references the "Yes, We Can" video. Its 15 million hits surely indicate it has been a very effective if not powerful way to reach if not influence young voters. The lead singer, admitted in an interview, he had not done any research, whatsoever, one iota, of Obama before making that video. 15 million hits.

    I am not knocking the video being made, or the intention behind it. But I do believe it highlights a contradiction among young voters. We want to be taken seriously, as a voting block who has done their research and knows their facts. But maybe the popularity of this video, and the ways in which Obama's campaign has successfully spread its message of 'hope' and 'change' acknowledges something they know and young voters are unwilling to admit or concede. Research, reading, and self informing be damned. Give us moving videos, snippets of speeches, and a generic message of change which speaks to our penchant for self-absorbed optimism (if you dream it, you can be it.”).
    Is the campaign strategy an insult to our senses or an incredibly effective recognition of what makes us tick?

    Ignorance is rampant in any age demographic. But it is undoubtedly an unhealthy and disturbing fact that there could be such an imbalance in one for the support of a candidate. Does it say something about us, we are unwilling to admit, or is it simply a great testament to Barrack Obama?

    October 27, 2008 at 4:28 pm |
  5. Jenn/Monrovia, CA

    I'm just on the edge of this age group, (31), but I feel the same way. Many of us under 40 grew up in this same world, and relate to Obama for the same reasons. It's a very exciting time for the younger generation, because we feel that we are making a difference in this election, when up till now we haven't really connected.

    We need more HOPE in this country, and a lot less HATE.

    October 27, 2008 at 4:14 pm |
  6. Heather, Washington

    I get emails from Barak's campaign three times a week asking for a $5.00 donation to support change and hope. I first thought that a politician asking for $5 contributions was ridiculous, simply because it was so off the norm. But that was before I donated $5, and now I see why Barak is so successful with our age demographic. We are involved, and therefore we want to be taken seriously as active members of society. For too long the ‘young vote’ was written off as apathetic and flaky and we are sick of it.

    Unfortunately most of us cannot afford to be the stereotypical 'platinum donors' paying out thousands of dollars to aid a candidate, but $5 I can handle, heck, I'll skip my morning latte for that. Barak’s campaign has expected us to be active voters; never questioning our commitment to this country, yet the campaign understands that we are not in a position to behave as 45 year olds. By approaching young voter turn out in a way that realistically asks for our support, Barak is reaping the benefits…be it $5 at a time.

    October 27, 2008 at 4:10 pm |
  7. Jeri

    Young people of America, you are our future! Get out and vote! Make sure the United States of America doesn't become the Divided States of America! Hope over Hate, 2008!

    October 27, 2008 at 4:02 pm |
  8. Cindy

    A lot of young voters like Obama because of his speeches and the party atmosphere at his rallies. Most have no clue at what he stands for. There have been several times where people have went to his rallies and asked the ones there to name what he stood for, they couldn't even name one thing. A lot of them also just go for the feel good thing.

    The truth is young people always register to vote then never follow through and do it. This will be no different.


    October 27, 2008 at 3:49 pm |
  9. Lama, Boston, MA

    What an amazingly insightful piece.
    Thank you for bringing forward the complexities of the young vote. We are often considered to be merely mesmerized or brainwashed by a candidate!

    October 27, 2008 at 3:38 pm |
  10. GySgt Larry D. Wright USMC (RET)

    I see and watch John McCain in his speaks rallying for the war. I watch the young guys and girls in the background cheering for more war. I am and Viet Nam era disabled veteran and I question why they are here wanting you to send your children to fight. farthermore Mitt Romney said Duriing the primaries his son's were business helping him canpaign. This sounds like Bush, Chaney, Limbaugh and on and on. Mitt, your campaign is over were are your boys. Lets go get the enemy.


    October 27, 2008 at 3:38 pm |
  11. Patrick of Ohio

    As a first time and "youth" voter I am proud to say I am not fooled by Obama or McCain. It is true, we are a colorblind generation. Most of us like Obama but don't trust him or McCain. with good reason too. Sure, a lot of my peers are cowed to the left, it is natural. Obama is younger too so there's that factor. Make no mistake though, the people running aren't about change or hope. THey are our parents age, we're letting the kids of the sixties and seventies take the government, and look how well that worked when we picked Bush and Clinton from that generation. Sorry older folks, but your generation fails, too partisan and too crooked. I absolutely cannot wait in 20-30 years when someone from our generation takes the mantle and sets things right. Until then I urge my fellow peers to vote third party as a vote of no confidence in this two party oligarchy. Obama and McCain are going to wreck our government and economy, and that's okay because we are a strong new generation and when they are gone we will fix the mess they leave us.

    October 27, 2008 at 3:37 pm |