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So this young voter walks into a bar . . .

Presidential campaigns use beer and TV to lure educated neophytes.

December 03, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — Strong drinks and live music are the usual attractions at the People's Bar & Grill, but on Thursday there was an added draw at the downtown pub: Michelle Obama.

"I know this is the end of a long workday. Have a beer. . . . Sit down, relax, take a load off," the wife of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama told the crowd of stylish people in their 20s and 30s.

She launched into her stump speech for the Democratic presidential candidate and urged the crowd to participate in the Jan. 3 caucuses. "You have the responsibility, no matter how busy your life is, or how cynical you think you've become. . . . You have to caucus," she said.

Long neglected by political campaigns, young professionals are being wooed through such groups as "Generation Obama," Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Hillblazers" and John McCain's "YP4McCain" -- that's Young Professionals for McCain, in the abbreviated style favored by text messagers.

The group they all are aiming at -- college graduates in the early years of their careers, often unmarried -- has long been viewed by campaigns as apathetic. But its voting strength is increasing.

In the 2004 presidential election, 20.1 million people under 30 voted -- 4.3 million more than in 2000. It marked the first substantive increase in young voters' participation in more than three decades. And their participation grew again in the 2006 midterm elections. In 2008, there will be 44 million potential voters younger than 30.

"Our demographic is waking up," said Jessica Walter, 25, government relations coordinator for the Greater Des Moines Partnership's Young Professionals Connection.

The campaigns are paying attention, according to Kathleen Barr, research director for Young Voter Strategies, a project at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. Young Voter Strategies recently merged with Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan group formed in 1990 that uses entertainers and pop culture to mobilize young voters.

At this point in the 2004 campaign, Howard Dean was the only candidate with a national youth coordinator. Now at least three campaigns have full-time staffers dedicated to reaching out to young people, and nearly every campaign has staffers or volunteers in Iowa and other early-voting states focused on getting young professionals to the polls, Barr said.

Hillblazers suggests that young supporters invite friends over to watch "Grey's Anatomy" or "House" before discussing Clinton's healthcare policy, or "The Office" before talking about Clinton's plans for expanding the middle class.

"You want to target these folks where they are and where they spend time," said Isaac Baker, a spokesman for Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.). "There's no better messenger for you than someone in their peer group who says, 'What are you up to this week? Come join me at a debate-watching party.' "

Malay Bouaphakeo, 24, was one such target. The information technology recruiter from Des Moines has never taken part in a caucus, and the Michelle Obama appearance was the first political event she had ever attended.

"As I get older, things are more important to me," said Bouaphakeo, who has not decided whom to support. "I just kind of got into it. I want to hear what everyone is saying."

And the setting didn't hurt, she said as she drained a beer.

Officials fear that young people find the caucuses confusing. The Democratic caucus, in particular, is complex; the winnowing of candidates and the bartering can take hours.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership held a series of summer events called "Caucus and Coronas" (the beer), and then a mock caucus in November. More than 150 people participated.

"It helps get them excited about it, and it helps them learn so they feel like they have a voice," Walter said. "People are afraid to jump in without knowing anything or knowing anyone."

Ellen Duwelius, 24, supported Democrat John F. Kerry in the last presidential election but didn't caucus for him because she was overwhelmed by the process. "I didn't know a whole lot about it," she said.

To prepare for Jan. 3, she attended the mock caucus. Otherwise, said Duwelius, a Des Moines event planner, "I would have walked in and not had a clue what to do."

Beyond votes, candidates are tapping young professionals for cash. But the fundraisers aren't stuffy rubber-chicken dinners capped by a grip-and-grin photo. Admission is typically $100 or less. The point of such events is buzz more than money. Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) held one at exclusive New York City nightclub Marquee. Model Tyson Beckford was among the celebrities at a Barack Obama fundraiser at Hollywood hot spot Falcon. Maya and the Goo Goo Dolls have performed at Clinton events.

Younger voters are "a very vibrant group that is often newer to the political process," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers, "so it's important to make the events more fun and have them at more exciting locations."

Dianne Bystrom, director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State, said: "These low-key events raise a little bit of money, but they're not really targeted at raising funds. They're targeted at raising friends for the candidate."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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