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Original Essays

Beyond Obama: Fulfilling the Promise of the Youth Vote

by Michael Connery
  1. Youth to Power: How Today
    $14.50 New Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Michael Connery has written a spirited and savvy guide to the 'Millennial' Generation that is reshaping progressive youth politics. If you want to understand the ideas, action, spirit and people building the progressive majority of our future — read this book!" Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation
Time Magazine has proclaimed this as the "year of the youth vote." Pundits who once dismissed young voters as a hopeless constituency, impossible to turn out to the polls, now speak sagely about the importance of young voters in this presidential cycle. Pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV and you are likely to find a story paying homage to young voters — this year's version of previous media darlings such as "soccer moms" or "NASCAR dads."

The difference is that what the pundits are saying now about young voters is true. This is the year of the youth vote, to a degree unseen since 1972, the first major election in which 18-year-olds had the right to cast a ballot. In every state that has held a primary or caucus thus far, young voter turnout has increased dramatically — in many cases doubling, tripling, and even quadrupling the turnout levels that were recorded in 2004. Clearly, young voters are apathetic no more.

Synonymous with the rising youth vote is Senator Barack Obama, whose campaign is thus far the primary beneficiary of higher young-voter turnout. It is Senator Obama's success in the Democratic nominating process that is driving media coverage of the youth vote, and vice versa. For those following this narrative in the media, it is hard not to come away with the impression that a youth movement has emerged from nowhere, conjured by the positive message and savvy tactics of the Obama campaign.

It's a tempting image, but it is wrong. The high level of youth support propelling Senator Obama toward the Democratic nomination existed long before he declared his intentions to run for president, and it will survive his campaign, whether he is successful or not. In truth, the "youth wave" began in 2003, when some of the older members of the Millennial Generation (those born between 1978 and 1996), disappointed in and disconnected from the Democratic Party establishment, against the Iraq war, and adamantly anti-George Bush, decided to take politics into their own hands. As a result, the 2004 election cycle saw a veritable boom in youth organizing, as Millennials and a few Gen Xers created dozens of groups and organizations dedicated to spreading a progressive political message and driving their peers to the polls. The Oregon Bus Project, Music for America, New Era Colorado, Drinking Liberally, Punk Voter, The League of Young Voters, The National Hip Hop Political Convention — the innovative, progressive organizations that have their roots in the 2004 election are many.

These youth organizations were aided by two significant groups: a handful of high-level Democratic donors, also discontented with the party, who bankrolled many of these new institutions, and Millennials themselves, a civic-minded generation inspired by the constitutional showdown in Florida during the 2000 election, 9/11, and the Iraq war to engage in politics and change the course of our country. Working together, these forces converged to remake Democratic youth politics in 2004, pioneering new tactics in peer-to-peer organizing and returning a level of cultural relevance to political activism not seen in decades.

The results speak for themselves. Though it is an underreported fact, in 2004 over four million new young voters went to the polls, with turnout among 18 to 29 year olds increasing to 49 percent (from 40 percent in 2000). In states targeted by these new youth organizations, turnout climbed as high as 64 percent. Best of all (for Democrats), young voters were the only age demographic to vote for John Kerry over George Bush, choosing the Massachusetts senator by a margin of 54 to 45 percent.

Other youth organizations continued to spring up in 2005 and 2006. It was in these years that now familiar names like Campus Progress and Young People For first opened their doors, creating a leadership-development pipeline and a campus media machine to match that of conservatives, who for years had invested a lot more money in their youth programs than did progressives. These new investments continued to pay dividends, as young voters voted Democratic by a 60 to 38 margin in the 2006 midterm elections, and were the margin of victory in a number of important races — including that of Jon Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia (thanks in no small part to his opponent's "macaca" moment on YouTube).

Thus, what we are witnessing in 2008 is not the creation of a progressive youth movement sui generis, but the culmination of work begun in 2004, of which the Obama campaign — or at least its youth operation — is an outgrowth. Senator Obama's youth outreach is run by Hans Reimer, former executive director of Rock the Vote and a veteran of the 2004 election, who is well versed in the peer-to-peer, online, and cultural tactics developed during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles. Students for Barack Obama, the Facebook group that became the student-organizing arm of the campaign, builds on the work of student organizers from the 2006 election, who used Facebook as a recruitment, identification, and get-out-the-vote tool. These two powerful forces — the Obama campaign and the new progressive youth movement — are amplifying one another, but as you can see, they are not interdependent.

You don't need to take my word for any of this, as the truth is in the numbers. In partnership with a Democratic and Republican pollster, Rock the Vote recently released a poll examining the attitudes of young voters. One of the questions posed to respondents asked why they were excited and engaged in the 2008 election. Only eight percent stated that a particular candidate was their main reason for following the election. By far, the vast majority of respondents cited their desire for a change in leadership, or the sense that this was a particularly important election, as the main reason for their engagement.

In the end, the message is — don't believe the hype. Barack Obama may be riding the youth wave, but he did not create it, and it will continue to exist long after the 2008 election is over. Simply put, this growing movement is bigger than any one candidate. What we are finally seeing today is the promise of the youth vote coming to fruition, which has been the hope of many since 1972.

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Michael Connery was a cofounder of Music for America, an organization that had great success getting out the youth vote during the 2004 election. He currently blogs about progressive youth politics at, and is also a weekend front-page writer at, as well as a contributor to and the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" blog. spacer

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