Senator Claire McCaskill is the highest-ranking Democrat in Missouri, and Missouri picks Presidents. The Show-Me State has voted for the winner in 25 of the past 26 elections. This is why the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination fought so hard for McCaskill’s endorsement. As her wary advisers helped her weigh the risks and rewards of siding with powerful Hillary Clinton or charismatic Barack Obama, neutrality began to look appealingly safe.
But there’s something about an 18-year-old that can’t abide careful hedging and cautious steps. The Senator’s daughter Maddie Esposito had seen the way her mother teared up whenever she heard Obama speak. And now it was happening again as mother and daughter sat side by side on the family-room sofa in a suburb of St. Louis, watching the results of the Iowa caucuses on TV.
“You know you believe in him,” Maddie admonished her damp-eyed mother. “It’s time to step up.” The next morning, Maddie, a college freshman home for the holidays, added a threat: “You have to do it, or I’m never talking to you again.”
McCaskill endorsed Obama — a big boost in an important Super Tuesday primary state. And the story of that endorsement is the Democratic-nomination battle etched in miniature.
Kids like Maddie Esposito are the muscle of Obama’s army. His campaign has become the first in decades — maybe in history — to be carried so far on the backs of the young. His crushing margin of victory in Iowa came almost entirely from voters under 25 years old, and as the race moved to New Hampshire and Nevada, their votes helped him stay competitive. In South Carolina on Saturday, Jan. 26, Obama’s better than 3-to-1 advantage among under-30 voters more than neutralized Clinton’s narrower edge among over-65s. Now, as the candidates shift to the coast-to-coast, Dixie-to-Dakota battlefield of Feb. 5, Obama is counting on a wave of Democrats experiencing their own McCaskill moments, roused to his banner by the fervent — if sometimes vague — urgings of youth.
Caroline Kennedy’s three teenagers began working on her last year.
“They were the first people who made me realize that Barack Obama is the President we need,” the daughter of John F. Kennedy told an audience in Washington on Jan. 28.
Her decision, joined by her uncle Senator Edward Kennedy, to place her father’s mantle on Obama’s shoulders was both a boost to Obama and a rebuke to the Clintons.
Frustrated by feckless Washington, energized by the unscripted, pundit-baffling freedom of a wide-open race, young people are voting in numbers rarely seen since the general election of 1972 — the first in which the voting age was lowered to 18.
Obama is both catalyst and beneficiary. In state after state, he has drawn more young voters than any of his competitors.
For a group of voters with no memory of a time before Bushes and Clintons, Obama is a fresh face. His opponents promise to fight, but Obama promises healing.
His is the language of possibility, which is the native tongue of the young. And if he happens to be light on details — well, what are details but the dull pieces of disassembled dreams? “I had a friend tell me this was impossible, quoting all these political-science statistics at me to show that it’s hopeless to try to organize students,” says Michelle Stein, 20, media coordinator for Obama’s youth campaign in Missouri. “Now he says, ‘You were right, I was wrong. Where do I sign up?’”
Combining digital-age technology with old-fashioned shoe leather, the Illinois Senator first rallied Iowa students to cancel Clinton’s cakewalk. While enthusiastic Democrats of all ages produced a 90% increase in turnout for the first caucuses, the number of young voters was up half again as much: 135%.
The kids preferred Obama over the next-closest competitor by more than 4 to 1. The youngest slice — the under-25 set, typically among the most elusive voters in all of politics — gave Obama a net gain of some 17,000 votes. He won by just under 20,000.
The excitement that created — a “tidal wave,” in the words of Bill Clinton — nearly drowned the hopes of the former President’s wife. But Hillary Clinton answered with her own organizational prowess, whipping up huge numbers of working-class, female and older Democrats.
Only the students have kept Obama in contention: in New Hampshire, his edge among young voters was 3 to 1; in Nevada, it was 2 to 1; and in Michigan, nearly 50,000 under-30s voted “Uncommitted” because Clinton’s name was the only one on the ballot.
In a year of unprecedented levels of participation by Democrats of all ages, Obama is counting on a youthquake that reverberates upward.
On the short road remaining to Super Tuesday, the race may come down to this: Will the youthful ranks of Obama’s movement grow virally as the election goes national? And will a public long trained to follow youthful trends be swept up in the tide?
The Ground Game
Obama is tapping into a broad audience of energized young voters hungry for change, according to a new TIME poll of under-30 Americans. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents said they feel the country is headed down the wrong track, with majorities expressing worries about jobs, affordable health care and the war in Iraq.
Their interest in the election exceeds their interest in celebrity news or sports — 7 of 10 said they are paying attention to the race.
Obama is the only candidate in either party who is viewed favorably by a majority of young people, and he has half again as much support as his nearest competitor, Democrat or Republican.
But Obama’s support among youth is not just a matter of mood; it is a product of effort and organization, of finding his supporters and getting them to the polls. In TIME’s national survey, he has a 3-to-2 advantage over Clinton among young voters, but he is doing significantly better than that in actual balloting, thanks to his superior ground game.
No other candidate can claim similar success. Turnout has been lackluster for all Republicans this year. In South Carolina, Obama drew more under-30 votes than all Republican candidates combined, according to exit polls.
Mike Huckabee does well among conservative Christian youth, but there is no sign of a surge in their ranks. The young people marching to Ron Paul’s drum are long on passion but short on numbers — roughly 3,000 in South Carolina, for example, compared with Obama’s estimated 50,000.
After gaining strength among voters whose views were formed in the Reagan years, the G.O.P. has the support of only 1 in 3 young people today, and the party’s luster has faded among independents.
Obama’s outreach to students didn’t spring from some starry-eyed principle. It started as a specific element of his early strategy in Iowa. The first-in-the-nation caucuses allow 17-year-olds to vote if they are going to turn 18 before the general election, which means most high school seniors are eligible.
To win those kids, Obama did something unusual in politics: he made them a genuine priority. After his rallies in towns across the state, he met backstage with student leaders from the area — a privilege most campaigns reserve for local VIPs and fund raisers. He also hired as his youth-vote coordinator Hans Riemer, a veteran of Rock the Vote, which has been working to mobilize the student vote for years, with increasing success.
Riemer extracted a promise that his work would be an integral part of the overall campaign, not a lip-serviced, photo-op’ed afterthought.
His timing was perfect. The art of political organizing is in the midst of a broad philosophical overhaul that erases many of the old distinctions between young voters and their elders.
Basically, it’s 19th century politics using 21st century tools. The idea is rooted in a deceptively simple truth: voters are more likely to go to the polls if they are asked face-to-face by someone they trust. The rediscovery of this antique notion began in the 1990s when researchers at Yale University published several influential studies proving that personal canvassing is more effective than direct mail or phone calls from strangers. In 2001, Republicans put the idea to a test in several special congressional elections, and the extra money and time devoted to door-knocking produced instant results. So the G.O.P. expanded the effort in 2002, then applied it to presidential politics in 2004. The party’s mammoth “72-Hour Project” — named for the final weekend of the campaign, when G.O.P. volunteers made literally millions of personal pitches — helped George W. Bush become the first candidate since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote.
“It’s really the same way we organized back in the heyday of political machines: know your voters and turn them out personally,” says George Mason University associate professor Michael McDonald, an expert on voter participation. “Obama has keyed into this and applied it on campus, using students to recruit other students.”What began as a tactic to capture rural caucuses snowballed into a systematic strategy. Obama put his money where his mouth was, spending precious radio and television dollars on ads aimed specifically at Iowa students. A student-to-student phone bank dialed tens of thousands of dorm rooms and cell phones. By Election Day, “we had our entire field operation working to turn them out,” says Riemer.
One recent evening in the trendy loft district of downtown St. Louis, students from Missouri campuses gathered at Obama’s state headquarters to plan the final phase of their own Super Tuesday effort. Quentin Anderson, 19, welcomed them by saying, “The youth vote is the most important factor in this cycle.We need to keep that momentum going.” Glenn Rehn, 25, reported that Obama volunteers at the University of Missouri had collected 800 signed pledges of support before leaving campus for winter break. Kevin Wolfe, 19, said that for his group at Washington University in St. Louis, the Iowa success was like throwing a switch. “People see that he can win, and they are moving off the fence.”
As the meeting continued, the students traded ideas for fund-raising concerts and teasingly racy “Show Us Your O-Face” parties. They discussed plans for “dorm-storming,” a canvassing technique that matches student volunteers with dormitories where they live or have friends.
“It’s a very intimate interaction because they’re hearing about Obama from someone they already know,” Wolfe explained.
The point of all these activities is to collect as many names as possible of potential supporters and then badger the prospects until they cast their ballots. Those Yale studies found that pleading doesn’t become ineffective until after the third appeal.
Washington University sophomore Charlie Bittner, 19, told the group he planned to take the personal approach even further. “I will lead groups every 30 minutes from a spot on campus to the polling place,” he said. “People feel more comfortable if they’re part of a group.”
The 21st century part is this: technology makes it easier than ever to create networks and share enthusiasm. Facebook, the largest of Internet social-networking sites, boasts a market share of more than 85% of four-year U.S. universities, with millions of members averaging 20 minutes per day on-site exploring interests and keeping track of friends. Facebook has all the power of Meetup, the online campaign sensation that powered Howard Dean’s brief moment in the presidential spotlight four years ago — plus much more. Its 65 billion page views per month make Facebook perfect for rapidly spreading messages and creating trends. “A kid puts up an Obama page, and suddenly she has 35 friends gathered,” Riemer marvels. “It was so much more work to get started just five years ago.”
That is not the only advantage of technology. Finding and communicating with students have traditionally been a nightmare for politicians. Students are constantly moving from home to dorm to group house to campus apartment. They don’t typically show up in the databases purchased by campaigns: rolls of past voters, lists of homeowners and membership files of special-interest groups. They aren’t regular watchers of TV news or subscribers to newspapers.
But kids can now catch candidate speeches and debate snippets on YouTube. Their cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses follow them everywhere.
Technology makes it easier for them to volunteer too: students who might never show up at a phone bank can now download contacts from a central database and make calls from the comfort of their dorm rooms. Loosely connected to traditional networks, young people are intensely connected online. They once were lost but now can be found, and Obama is being rewarded for making the effort
Barack the Vote
If you want to feel old, just tell a group of teenagers today that you can remember a time when the Clintons were hip. There was this guy on TV, see, called Arsenio Hall, and Bill Clinton went on wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone, and, well, no, it wasn’t on YouTube — this was before most people had heard of the Internet — oh, never mind. There’s nothing new, for today’s young people, about a Clinton replacing a Bush.
Claire McCaskill’s daughter, to take one newly eligible voter, was all of 2 years old when that happened the first time. The Gingrich revolution came during her pre-K years; impeachment was around second grade. In other words, no matter how many times Hillary Clinton intones the magic word of 2008 — change — it’s going to ring a bit hollow, because she is an eternal piece of their mental furniture.
Obama, by contrast, radiates the new. He doesn’t just talk about change; he looks like change. His person and his platform are virtually indistinguishable. Obama, like Tiger Woods and Angelina Jolie, has one of those faces that seem beamed from a postracial future, when everyone will have a permanent, noncarcinogenic tan. He has small kids and a low BMI. His voice rumbles with authority, but his ears stick out like Opie Taylor’s. His campaign is crawling with cool young people, and the candidate fits right in. We’ve yet to see Obama flustered or harried; instead, he gives off the enigmatic Zen confidence of the guy who is picked first for every game.
His lack of experience can even seem like an asset to young voters. “I like that he’s new,” says Neil Stewart, 18, a freshman at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “We need some freshness in our government right now.” Obama’s “inexperience means he comes in with a fresh look and isn’t quite as jaded by the political system as most other people are,” says Jennifer Zamarripa, 26, a University of Denver law-school student. “He’s new and modern and breaking with the past,” says José Villanueva, 21, a senior at Claremont McKenna College in California.
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which thick Washington résumés are out of vogue on U.S. campuses. Especially among young Democrats, many of whom cast their first votes in 2006 to elect a Congress that would change course in Iraq and make progress on issues like health care. The yawning chasm between what was promised in that campaign and what the Democratic Congress has actually delivered makes everyone with seniority in Washington automatically suspect. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd probably have socks that have spent more time in the Senate than has Obama, and look what good their years of experience did for them.
It’s also true that the issues of the past are not necessarily the issues most compelling for today’s students. Pollster Frank Luntz gathered a focus group of New Hampshire students on the eve of the primary there, and the hour-long conversation barely touched on the hot buttons of yore: abortion, crime and affirmative action. Their world, after all, encompasses RU 486, lower murder rates and Oprah. What concerns many of them is the nature of politics: the perceived gridlock of parties, conniving of special interests and shallow biases of the media. When Obama talks broadly about changing those dynamics, what strikes some older ears as airy and substance-free hits younger voters as the chime of insight. Washington University senior Matt Adler, 21, puts it this way, “What Obama brings to the forefront is the issue of process. It’s not just what gets done but how it gets done; the morality of the process matters. Being honest, open and inclusive is an issue in itself.”
Of course, young people are far from unanimous. “If we were electing someone on the basis of their ability to give great speeches, then Obama would be a great choice,” says Jonathan Beam, 21, a political science major at Emory University. “But Hillary Clinton outshines the rest of the field with her experience, and I just don’t think we can afford to let another candidate get on-the-job training.” While you can find students who aren’t voting for Obama, though, it’s harder to find students who don’t recognize his appeal. “A lot of my friends from home are Republicans,” says Caitlin Ellis, 20, a University of Missouri junior, “and it’s refreshing not to have to fight tooth and nail with them when I say I’m for Obama.”
Where Obama could be onto something truly rare is the way his campaign themes, personal story and base of support reinforce one another. Obama radiates change, which attracts young people, which in turn validates the message of change. He tells young people they can make a difference, and they decide to vote, thus making a difference. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson put it, and if Obama can make it fly, it can have deep implications in a society primed to follow the passions of youth. As cultural critic Thomas Frank explained in his book The Conquest of Cool, advertising agencies in the 1960s forever transformed youth from a demographic group to a consuming ideal. Historian T.J. Jackson Lears of Rutgers University traces the association of youth with political renewal far into America’s past. “It’s quite thoroughly embedded,” he says. “It really begins with Theodore Roosevelt,” who became President at age 42. Freshness and vitality have almost always sold better than the worry lines of veteran leadership.
Tomorrow’s Democrats Today
Will it happen? There are plenty of reasons to doubt. Obama’s Iowa effort was long on money and loaded with time. Conditions were perfect for the slow, hard work of grassroots organizing. Now it’s the opposite. On Feb. 5, half the remaining states will vote, including those with megapopulations such as California, Arizona, Georgia and New York State. What’s more, the rules are less favorable to student organizers. Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada all had some of the most liberal voting laws in the country. Same-day registration meant that first-time voters could be swept to the polls by a last-minute appeal. By contrast, those Missouri volunteers and their counterparts in many other states face the hard fact that students who weren’t registered weeks earlier will be stuck on the sidelines. They can’t catch the Obama wave no matter how many times they are asked in the cafeteria.
However, Hillary Clinton also confronts the harsh math of too many states and too few resources. Super Tuesday will be another step into uncharted territory in this unusually competitive, uniquely front-loaded campaign. In the absence of wall-to-wall television ads, what role will online communications play? Will turnout remain high as campaign field operations are stretched thinner than pantyhose? If the enthusiasm wanes, who stays home — Obama’s kids or Hillary’s geezers? “I’m confident that we will turn out more young voters than ever before,” says Riemer, “but what size piece of the puzzle that ultimately is, I just can’t say.”
When young people get involved, they tend to stay involved. The graybeards of today’s Democratic Party were once the inspired youth of the New Frontier, or Clean for Gene McCarthy, or bell-bottomed foot soldiers for George McGovern. Scan the crowd at an Obama rally, squint, and you just might see the future. For the moment, it’s enough for young Obama supporters to feel that they are part of something big and historic. “I am a believer that change can happen,” says Patricia Griffin, 25, a student at St. Louis Community College. “So-called Washington experience has given us an unjustified war, an economy slipping, the dollar losing its value, health care impossible to afford. I’m telling my friends they can make a difference this time. They can vote.”
By David Von Drehle
With reporting by Karen Tumulty/Washington, Paige Bowers/Athens, Rita Healy/Denver, Kristin Kloberdanz/Berkeley and Justin Horwath/Minneapolis