A supporter of President-elect Barack Obama wears ears with the faces of Obama and his running mate Joe Biden at the election night party at Grant Park in Chicago, Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelde)
When Barack Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on September 6, he spoke not of the past or his record in any detail, but of the future and the obligations that citizens have to “future generations.” Designed to cast Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as inheritors of failed, worn-out ideas, Obama’s speech was also a direct appeal to the key constituency that propelled him to victory in 2008: the millennials.
This generation, born in the 1980s and ’90s, chose Obama over John McCain by 34 points and represented approximately 70 percent of the margin of difference between them in the popular vote. Four years later, its numbers have swollen from 48 million eligible voters in 2008 to 64 million today—nearly a third of the entire electorate—making Obama’s pitch to them all the more urgent.
On opposite ends of the country, two representatives of this generation were listening to the president’s plea: Gustavo, 22, an Apple employee in Los Angeles, and Matt, a twenty-something computer engineer from Wisconsin. Together they represent the dual challenge ahead for the Obama campaign in the closing weeks of this election: to reactivate the army of young volunteers who formed the backbone of his coalition in 2008, and to win over the young undecideds who are a growing segment of the voting population.
Gustavo had become part of the so-called Obama Generation in June 2007, one week after he graduated from high school, when he attended an Obama for America training session in Glendale, California. “I was really wowed by how passionate people were about organizing theory,” he told me. “It captivated me like nothing else had before.” Gustavo worked the primaries in Southern California and then went to Colorado for the general election.
After Obama’s victory, the question of how to keep the millions of young volunteers like Gustavo involved loomed large over the Democratic Party. According to Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, the Democrats pursued two strategies. The first was to strengthen truly nonpartisan civic engagement programs like AmeriCorps, which has seen its funding triple since 2008 but remains vulnerable to attacks from conservatives in Congress. The second was to cultivate campaign volunteers as a durable political force by transforming Obama for America into Organizing for America (OFA).
Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz told me that OFA was “the first campaign that didn’t shut down and pull up stakes,” and that young organizers played a key role in advocating for the Affordable Care Act and other policies. But independent observers give OFA harsh marks. “The ball got dropped,” Levine says. John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, laments, “We wasted an incredible opportunity. We gave young people responsibility for politics, but didn’t give them responsibility for government.”
Four years later, Gustavo more or less agrees with OFA’s critics. “It would have been great if the relationships [from the campaign] could carry through circles of policy discussion and work as vehicles of change,” he said. But young volunteers weren’t sure “how to engage themselves post-election.” Watching the 2012 convention, Gustavo said he was thinking about taking a leave from his job to volunteer in Pennsylvania. “If I didn’t do anything now and [Obama] were to lose, I would feel some sort of responsibility,” he explained.