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Keeping Obama's young army engaged

Democrats want to hold on to under-30 voters as campaigning moves to governing.

November 23, 2008|Laura Olson | Olson is a writer for our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — Myra King, who coordinated Students for Barack Obama at Loyola University in Chicago, put in long hours registering voters and canvassing neighborhoods as part of a nationwide campaign that targeted younger voters, drew overwhelming support and now offers potential for a new engagement with American youth.

Now it's transition time for a multitude of organizers who descended on college campuses this fall in an effort to get their peers to the polls. As their candidate prepares to take the oath of office, they are redirecting their attention to pressing for legislation on their issues. Their challenge: keeping the attention of an under-30 crowd of motivated voters into the next semester and beyond.

Barack Obama captured 66% of the vote among those under 30, exit polling showed, with only 31% voting for Republican nominee John McCain.

The Obama transition team already has moved to capitalize on this enormous youth base: Web-casting the president-elect's weekly addresses on YouTube; communicating its transition steps on a post-election website, Change.gov; and reaching out by e-mail to many of the campaign's 3 million donors amassed during a nearly two-year campaign.

The team also has taken advantage of booming social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, in reaching out to younger voters in their own element.

"I really enjoyed that during the campaign. . . . There were constant e-mails about what we can do," King, 19, said. "The Internet and Facebook is the way to keep in touch with our generation."

Experts say factors that contributed to increasing youth turnout at the polls will be key to continuing this engagement as an election season fades into governance.

"Obama forged a much different relationship with young voters than" Sen. John F. Kerry did in the 2004 campaign, said Scott Keeter, the Pew Research Center's director of survey research. "In terms of a separate force created from the grass-roots, the machinery for that is in place in a way that I don't think we've ever seen before."

In preventing younger voters from drifting away, one challenge for the new administration will be how well it lives up to its promises, Keeter says. Exit polls show that younger voters are eager for change on a variety of fronts that affect their lives -- healthcare, college costs and, as with the rest of the electorate, economic issues.

Nationally, Pew's research has found that one quarter of younger voters said they were contacted by the Obama campaign in person or by telephone, compared with only 13% who said the McCain campaign contacted them during the contest. This helped the Obama campaign register many new voters, particularly on college campuses.

Obama raised more than $650 million -- a record -- with about half collected in donations of less than $200 in large from a massive online fundraising operation. Among voters 18 to 29, Pew's research found, 9% contributed to a political campaign this year.

On election day, younger voters turned out overwhelmingly for the Democrat, reminding some of a 1980s realignment that created a generation of Republican voters.

"We hope the lesson of this election is that when you pay attention to young people, they pay attention to you," said Sujatha Jahagirdar of the New Voters Project.

Previously, politicians had little incentive or methodology when it came to reaching a younger demographic with a poor track record of turning out to vote. But social networks, e-mail lists and text messaging have given politicians tools for campaigning -- and now, perhaps, for governing as well.

Using these techniques to build on the campaign's network could "continue a dialogue and increase transparency," said Bobby Campbell of the Student Assn. of Voter Empowerment, a national group focused on increasing voter turnout.

Networking technology could also help younger voters stay interested in -- and possibly get involved in lobbying -- an issue when legislation is moving through various committees on Capitol Hill.

Sites such as YouTube also can help the Obama administration reach out to tech-savvy youth. Obama's transition team, whose YouTube channel is called ChangeDotGov, posted the president-elect's first Saturday radio address on the site, where it was viewed more than 800,000 times in three days.

The transition team also is focused on another track of youth engagement with plans to expand national service opportunities such AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.

Younger voters told Harvard University pollsters this fall that they are interested in public service, particularly if they are asked to serve.

The transition's website lists service opportunities and asks those interested in participating to submit contact information to the incoming administration.

Volunteer service can translate into involvement in bigger policy issues later on, Jahagirdar says.

"They get exposed to some of the more systemic problems, and very quickly move toward the idea that you need policy change," she said. "They start asking some of the deeper questions."

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lolson@tribune.com

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