Pennsylvania - 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.
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.
See the video.
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
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.
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
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 appropriated 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.
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.
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
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."