Less than eight hours before polls open in Michigan tomorrow, Gov. Jennifer Granholm took the stage at the Michigan Union to rally students in support of Barack Obama.
While wearing a shirt bannered with “1.20.09” — the last day George W. Bush will serve as president — Granholm told the crowd of 600 University students that their votes are needed to put Barack Obama in the White House.
“This is your election,” Granholm said. “You’ve got to prove them wrong when they say that young people don’t vote. You’ve got to prove to them that your moment is now.”
The rally, which brought several Michigan Democratic heavyweights to campus, was a call-to-arms, attempting to mobilize members of the country’s most unreliable voting bloc: 18- to 24-year olds.
Behind the impassioned speeches and fervent applause is a lingering concern that this election will be just like the last one, and many before that, in which Democratic candidates have counted on young voters to buck the trend and show up the polls on Election Day, only to discover that those votes never materialized.
For older Americans, the Bush presidency is one of many they’ve seen in their adult lives. For college juniors, the Bush presidency is almost all they know. He was first elected when they were in middle school.
Political Science Prof. Michael Traugott, who studies political polls and surveys, said the Democratic focus on younger voters has not proven effective in the past, but people between the ages of 18 and 24 support Obama over Republican nominee John McCain by a 2-to-1 margin.
“The Democrats in particular have been interested in adding young people to the rolls by getting them registered and then getting them to the polls,” Traugott said. “This has not been historically a successful strategy.”
In every election since 1972 — the first presidential election after the passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 — turnout among those aged 18-24 has trailed that of voters aged 25 years and older by about 20 percent, according to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Traugott attributes the lackluster youth turnout to the fact that the policies and proposals championed by major-party candidates do not necessarily affect voters in that age group.
“Most young people aren’t paying property taxes, they don’t own homes, they don’t have kids in school,” he said. “Their attachments to the community are weaker.”
But that was also the case in 1960, when the presidential bid of John F. Kennedy energized America’s youth and ignited a decade of political activism.
Many have made the parallel between Kennedy and Obama. Both young, progressive and with larger than life rhetoric, Kennedy and Obama had cozy relationships with young voters.
John Kingdon, a professor emeritus of political science, said the fundamentals of this election, like President Bush’s unpopularity, and the explicit appeal to young voters from Obama’s campaign could allow the Illinois Senator to disprove the longstanding political theory of young voter aparthy.
“It looks as though Obama actually will stimulate young people to turn out at the polls,” he said. “More than they have in the past, and more than they did when Kennedy was running.”
But the political engagement of today’s youth is not that surprising.
This is a generation that watched the events of September 11, 2001 in middle school, formed their political opinions under the leadership of a single president and will now enter the job market facing this nation’s worst economic climate since the Great Depression. Many argue, like Kingdon, that this will be the year for America’s youth to head to the polls in record numbers. Obama’s counting on it.
His campaign has focused on making an ambivalent voting bloc viable for the first time in modern American politics, and sought their support in ways no campaign has ever done before. He sent text and e-mail messages and used social networking websites to make campaign announcements, ask supporters to volunteer and remind them to vote. He has advertised in video games. Popular musicians have recorded songs and produced viral videos to support the candidate. But ultimately, his actions beg the question: why spend so much time and dedicate so many campaign staffers to gaining ground with a group that doesn’t vote?
If 18 to 24 year olds stay at home today, Traugott said the election could be a nail-biter for Obama. But with their support, Traugott said, Obama can count on expanding his margin of victory nationally by at least two or three percent. While a slim difference in terms of the popular vote, increased turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds could tilt some swing states, considering President Bush’s narrow victories in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004.
Because of this potential impact, the Obama team, through its rhetoric and campaign strategy, has methodically courted America’s youth by promising that the Democratic presidential contender will loosen the nation’s political gridlock and stabilize the economy.
“He’s tried to explain in very general terms about what’s wrong and what could be better,” Traugott said of Obama. “He’s cast himself as the agent of change and therefore he needs their support in order to bring about change.”
Though it has grown more concrete in recent months, the rhetoric of the Obama campaign has been built on the soaring terminology of change — a direct appeal to young people fed up with the way the government is being run.
“The general tone is optimistic, based upon doing better and contributing to do better,” Traugott said of Obama’s campaign. “Trying to talk not so much about the past, but talking about how things can be improved in the United States and how young people can contribute to that improvement.”
To get this message to America’s youth, the Obama campaign has poured unprecedented levels of resources into turning out these historically apathetic voters. The campaign began by holding massive voter registration drives on college campuses and in urban areas. While working with paid Obama field organizers, the University’s chapter of College Democrats reported collecting registration forms from about 4,500 students between the start of the fall semester and Michigan’s Oct. 6 registration deadline.
But Obama still faces the challenge of getting those newly registered young people to the polls.
The Obama campaign has asked volunteers, many of them college students, to make phone calls and knock on doors, making sure every supporter has cast a ballot by 8 p.m. tonight. Canvassers helped supporters who couldn’t make it to the polls request absentee ballots.
In the 34 states that allow registered voters to cast ballots prior to Election Day, such as North Carolina and Ohio, the campaign has been trying to run up the score as much as it can even before people head to the polls today. One aspect of this has been mobilizing young people to vote early to avoid potential conflicts, like class, on Election Day. A Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll found that about 30 percent of expected voters had cast their ballots early, supporting Obama by a margin of 20 percentage points.
If young voters, who currently make up 13 percent of the electorate, do indeed turn out to overwhelmingly support Obama, they could change the role they play in lawmakers’ decisions and future campaigns.
College Democrats chair Nathaniel Eli Coats Styer said he’s optimistic about the possibility.
“We won’t be relegated to the sidelines anymore,” he said.