As the big-time political pundits pick over the point spread and exit polls of the Iowa caucuses, they eventually will stumble upon what I consider the most interesting story there: The re-emergence of engaged young adults.
The statistics on the Democratic side are nothing less than startling. According to CNN's exit (and entrance) polls, Barack Obama took 57 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote compared to 11 percent for his chief rival, Hillary Clinton. He took 41 percent of the votes of first time caucus goers, a dozen points more than any of his rivals. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee outpolled Mitt Romney nearly 2-1 among the youngest group of voters.
Even considering all the caveats — a caucus draws far fewer voters overall than a primary and Iowa is a small place to begin with — these figures suggest something is stirring out there.
"The huge difference was that we had the greatest organization ever built in this state," Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, told The New York Times. "And it was built on the backs of idealistic kids who came in here not just because they believed in Obama, but they wanted to change the course of history and the world."
Passionate youth are nothing new to politics. Just four years ago, the tech savvy Deaniacs ushered in the era of big-time online fund-raising and this election cycle Ron Paul's kiddie corps has harvested millions. But translating the passion to votes is another matter. Just ask Howard Dean. In Round 1, anyway, Obama converted the passion to action.
If he continues to succeed at this, his story may yet be the biggest since two brothers named Kennedy crashed the political scene in the 1960s. That's because, at least on the surface, it is irony, not hope, that has characterized my children's and students' generation.
Forgive my narrow-mindedness, but it seems their biggest contribution to American culture to date has been one word -- "whatever." My two daughters wielded it with such wicked delight in their teens that it made me secretly want to throttle them. Now my peers and I now use it regularly as well.
Barack Obama's message is the antithesis of "whatever." He is a man who prides himself in his capacity to engage anyone, friend or foe. He is, he tells followers at every opportunity, "fired up, ready to go." With his big ears and slightly goofy smile, he is the antithesis of cool, the geeky guy who in the end turns out to be cool because he so isn't.
But perhaps, as with all political movements, in the end it's not merely about the man, not about his call for change, not about the ascendancy of a new, race-neutral political America. Perhaps this time, "it's the voters, stupid." Young voters.
Certainly the sweep of Obama's support in Iowa, driven by young, single, first-time caucus goers, at least suggests that in this deconstructionist, create-your-own reality, there-is-no-truth era of deeply cynical politics and personal life, idealism is showing signs of a comeback.
No. Make that, I hope so.
Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. His blog can be found at http://makingsenseofnews.blogspot.com