The presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama is successfully tapping into the youth vote energized by opposition to the Iraq war, as his burgeoning Students for Obama movement has almost doubled its presence on the nation’s college campuses in the past few weeks.
Students for Obama was one of the groups that participated in drafting the senator from Illinois into the Democratic presidential race. The group is now an in-house arm of the “Obama for America” campaign. Since the start of last month, the group has grown from 160 chapters across the country to about 300 and doesn’t plan to lose steam after the school year.
“Over the summer, we are committed to making sure that the students remain engaged, and we will organize going door to door to get the word out about the senator,” said Meredith Segal, 21, executive director of Students for Obama.
The junior from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, said her group will begin canvassing statewide in New Hampshire this weekend and is training students to organize across the country.
The campaign has scheduled a national “Walk for Change” on June 9. Participants will help build a long-term grass-roots infrastructure for the Obama campaign, which Miss Segal and her group call “our campaign.”
“When the students return to their school in September, those who have gone through the training will be set up to reach out to get the new students involved,” Miss Segal said.
Pollsters and scholars say Mr. Obama’s attraction of young and new voters has the potential to change the face of the Democratic Party as did the presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Howard Dean four years ago.
Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama and a fellow Democrat, California State Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass, noted that Mr. Obama has an “inspirational message” for young and new voters.
“I think with the war, Obama will mobilize a new set of primary voters to the Democratic Party,” said Katherine Tate, research professor for political science at the University of California at Irvine, noting that the senator’s popularity among youths transcends racial differences.
“One of the things that changed after 1984 is that other white contenders began to campaign differently going directly to black voters in churches and their communities, using similar approaches that Jesse used,” Ms. Tate said, noting that a failure to energize black youths hurt Mr. Dean in 2004.
She said the war issue helps a candidate who can appeal to youths, who can identify with twentysomethings fighting in Iraq, rather than someone who emphasizes issues important to seniors such as Social Security and Medicare.
David Bositis, chief researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said Mr. Obama has the potential to gain broader appeal than Mr. Jackson because he is a proven political winner rather than a minister-activist trying to enter politics.
“There is already some evidence, in terms of [Mr. Obama’s] contribution on politics, that there are some young relatively well-to-do African-Americans who are giving to him,” Mr. Bositis said.
“For a lot of younger African-Americans, if it really looks like he has the possibility of winning the nomination and then becoming president, that would have a really strong pull in getting them to the polls. Let’s face it, it would be a historic event,” Mr. Bositis said.
Conservative activist David Horowitz, who has spent 20 years organizing conservative college students, said experience has taught him that young voters are unpredictable. He said the 2008 election could be one of “the most interesting” in that regard, in part because the war also is energizing conservative students.
“Conservatives organizing is almost a contradiction in terms. You don’t see a lot of campus crusades on anything from conservative students,” he said. “What I detect on the college campuses, at least among conservative students, is a qualitative energy on the war policy … and I have never seen them as energized.”
Mr. Bositis cautioned against comparing the Obama and Jackson campaigns, noting that the minister’s mobilization efforts had unpredictable effects. Ms. Tate noted that the Jackson campaign was more about building blacks’ identification with the Democratic Party, while Mr. Obama is looking for a broad coalition.
In the 1984 campaign, Mr. Bositis said, Mr. Jackson registered nearly 3.5 million voters, nearly all of whom voted for him in the primaries and then voted in November for former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, the Democratic nominee.
“In 1988, another 3.5 million new black voters, on top of those from the 1984 election, voted for Jesse in the primary, but a much smaller percentage voted in the general that year for the [Democratic] nominee, Michael S. Dukakis,” he said.