COLUMBIA, S.C. - From the tieless look he’s adopted on the campaign trail to his Facebook-style Web page, Barack Obama, the fresh-faced first-term senator from Illinois, has cultivated the aura of youth that naturally surrounds the youngest major candidate in the presidential race. So it was hardly surprising that the 46-year-old would be the first presidential candidate onstage when College Democrats met for their national convention last week.
“In this election, it’s our turn. It’s your generation’s turn,” Obama told a cheering crowd of college political activists that filled a ballroom at the University of South Carolina student union and overflowed into a nearby theater. “Let’s bring a new generation of leadership to America.”
For Obama’s campaign, which runs camps for young volunteers, the pitch to college students carries far greater strategic importance than simply obtaining votes from a group not known for Election Day turnout. Rather, the sense of support from the young helps Obama promote himself, even to older voters, as reflecting change and a new generation.
Just as his mixed-race heritage and relative newness on the national political scene signal voters that his candidacy represents change, so too does his youth, and that perception is strengthened by a broader following among the young. Enthusiasm from a generation that is just coming of age fits with the message of optimism that Obama seeks to convey.
The Illinois senator whose bid for the White House followed the launch of his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” is striving to be the first Democratic president since Bill Clinton, the self-styled “man from Hope.”
“He has this message of hopefulness and change, and the attachment of youth to that is very important in signaling, `The new generation is with me and it’s time for a new generation of political leadership,’” said Ann Crigler, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the use of emotion in political campaigns.
Other candidates are also courting younger voters. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., offered a hip Web video spoofing the finale of the HBO series “The Sopranos,” as well as a Web contest to pick her campaign song that was geared toward younger, tech-savvy voters. John Edwards’ crusade against poverty appeals to idealism, and his One Corps community service operation is oriented toward the young.
But Obama, with his 300,000 Facebook friends and the purported affection of the hit Internet performer “Obama Girl,” has generated more buzz. And his early opposition to the war in Iraq associates him with a political cause that is motivating many young people, particularly those who lean Democratic.
“All of the candidates are trying for younger voters and want to have them with them,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic media strategist who advised Howard Dean’s youth-oriented 2004 campaign. “He’s more visibly succeeding.”
A poll of voters aged 18 through 24 by Harvard’s Institute of Politics in March indicated that Obama was supported by 35 percent of Democratic-leaning voters versus 29 percent for Clinton. In a June poll of 17- to 29-year-olds from both parties for MTV/New York Times/CBS News, 18 percent of respondents were “enthusiastic” about Obama and 17 percent about Clinton. Other candidates from both parties trailed.
The last Republican presidential candidate to receive much stronger support from young voters than from the overall public was Ronald Reagan in his 1984 “Morning Again in America” re-election campaign, though his bid did not have a theme of generational change, according to Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
Of course, a strong following among youth doesn’t necessarily translate into victory. Dean excited young voters in 2004 but was unable to broaden that support, and he lost the Democratic nomination to John Kerry.
Still, the connection between youth and an appeal for generational change is well-established in presidential politics.
John Kennedy, the youngest elected president at age 43, presented his campaign as a political coming-of-age for a new generation.
Contrasting himself with his elderly predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy projected an image of youthful vigor, with memorable images of him sailing on the ocean or playing touch football and frequent references to his young family. He inaugurated his presidency by announcing that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.”
Bill Clinton was the first Baby Boomer president, elected to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac singing “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” He broke political tradition and reached out to younger voters by appearing on MTV and donning shades to play saxophone on late-night television.
Now Obama is campaigning as the candidate who will take leadership of the country from the Vietnam generation. That, not incidentally, contrasts with Hillary Clinton, who came of age during the struggle over Vietnam.
Obama regularly sounds the theme of generational change in campaign appearances. The word “generation” popped up 13 times during his campaign announcement speech in Springfield, Ill., on a bitter-cold morning.
In the Democratic Party in particular, a youth following evokes romantic political movements of the recent past, particularly anti-Vietnam War candidacies that have a new resonance given the fervor in the party against the Iraq war. Waves of college students played a prominent role in the anti-war Democratic primary campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.
Today’s youth are not galvanized in quite the same way, said Gans, a sociologist who studies voter behavior and had first-hand experience as staff director for McCarthy’s New Hampshire and Wisconsin primary campaigns.
College students today lack the direct personal motivation that was created by the Vietnam-era draft. The major Democratic candidates now are united in supporting a withdrawal from Iraq, in contrast to the deep divisions within the party in the late `60s surrounding Vietnam, said Gans.
Younger voters tilted heavily toward Kerry over Bush in the 2004 election, and youth turnout was the highest since 1972, Gans said.
Even so, turnout among the young remained relatively low. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds turned out to vote in 2004, versus 64 percent turnout among the overall voting-age population.