Peter Dreier’s 11-year-old twin daughters, Amelia and Sarah, are volunteering for the Obama Campaign.
Twenty-year-old Tobin Van Ostern finished his sophomore year last spring at George Washington University, but this fall he’s enrolled in the Barack Obama campaign as a full-time organizer. The Richmond, Virginia, native started Students for Obama on his campus last year as a Facebook group. It now has chapters on 800 campuses, Van Ostern said, and the campaign has recruited thousands of college students and recent graduates to work as both paid staffers and unpaid volunteers through the November election.
Democratic Party strategists believe that in key swing states, a dramatic increase in turnout among young voters–and African-Americans–can be the key to victory for both Obama and the party’s candidates for Congress. Campus activists, meanwhile, view the Obama campaign as a means to catalyze a new progressive youth movement among the Millennial (18- to 29-year-old) generation that they hope, unlike the political crusades of the 1960s youth rebellion, will be part of a broader, multigenerational coalition.
Ever since 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1971, their elders have been disappointed by their level of voter turnout, which has typically been about half the rate of other voters. But after steady declines in turnout since 1972, young voters reversed the trend in the 2004 presidential and 2006 mid-term elections. This year, however, is likely to see a particularly significant increase in voting among Millennials.
Some of the Students for Obama have been involved in the burgeoning campus activism of the past decade, but most have never been involved in politics before. It was Obama who inspired them, and it was students like Van Ostern who figured out how to engage them.
“The excitement is definitely there,” explained Van Ostern. “The question is how we translate that into feet on the ground.”
“There’s a young-voter revolution underfoot,” said Alexandra Acker, executive director of Young Democrats of America, one of dozens of partisan and nonpartisan groups working to expand political involvement among the under-30 cohort.
With 44 million eligible voters, the Millennials comprise almost one-quarter of the potential electorate; by 2015, they will make up one-third of potential voters. But will they vote? The uptick in Millennial political participation has been going on for four years. The 2004 election marked the largest increase in 18-to-29-year-old turnout since 1972. Forty-nine percent of eligible Millennial voters went to the polls, a 9 point increase over 2000, although still far below the turnout rate of voters over 30. In the ten most competitive battleground states in 2004, however, where campaigns targeted young voters, Millennial turnout was even higher–64 percent.
Studies confirm that direct contact by peers increases the likelihood that young people will vote. Yale political scientists Don Green and Alan Gerber found that peer-to-peer contact raised youth turnout by eight to twelve points among registered voters. The spike in youth turnout in 2004 and 2006 was no fluke. It was the result of a significant increase in voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives by political campaigns, party groups and nonpartisan organizations.