The youth vote is poised to be the decisive factor in the 2008 Presidential Election. Young people have set records all year at primaries across the country and any candidate on the wrong side of that groundswell shouldn’t sleep easy. In a recent USA Today op-ed, American Enterprise Institute fellow David Frum laments the Republican loss of the youth vote to more savvy Democratic Party organizers. But in my estimation, the youth vote is still up for grabs.
Those outside of the Obama campaign, like Frum, assume that Team Obama is extraordinarily skilled at organizing young people. They’re dead wrong. Obama may be reaching young voters but his is a marketing campaign. What’s needed is an outreach campaign to already organized collectives of young people. There is a difference.
Obama’s message of change is indeed attractive to young voters who have been waiting for their generation’s Freedom Rides. But a concerted effort to tap into the countless youth activists who have been organizing since 2004 would give Obama a solid base and not simply the loose confederate of individuals that he has now–and that will fall apart after the election.
Politically organized bodies of youth do exist. The Hip Hop Congress has over 80 chapters around the country and the League of Young Voters daily organizes youth in states like Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Nevada. These organizations reach young people where they are and prior to this election season, were already making electoral politics sexy for them.
By default–and for now–Barack Obama’s campaign has been the beneficiary of these groups’ grassroots efforts.
Over the last two months, I’ve been traveling across the country with youth organizers on a 10-city townhall meeting tour, discussing what young people should expect to get out of participating in the upcoming election.
During our visits to places like Boston, Hartford, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Fairfield and Bethlehem, I conducted informal polls of well-known and respected twenty-and-thirty-something activists. I made an intriguing discovery.
Of those organization’s leaders with the most significant national following, guess how many Team Obama had contacted? None.
It’s a mistake for Obama to cruise on the assumption that young voters will neither cross over to Hillary Clinton nor Republicans.
Obama’s opposition would be wise to consider the following.
• Put a firm offer on the table for young voters that you can realistically deliver (be it reduced student loan debt, working class jobs, sharing the burden of the Iraq war, or a strategy to lower gas prices).
• Tap young leaders with a following for significant decision-making positions in your campaign and beyond.
• Start an ongoing dialogue that will last through the election and that builds an accountable relationship between the White House and youth.
A substantive move in any of these directions will yield what Clinton and John McCain have been praying for: the occasion to finally see the fear of impending defeat in Obama’s eyes.
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