Editors’ Note: Come next January, we will be seeing a new face in the White House. This political shift is one of the most anticipated in recent years and carries with it the future of our troubled nation. For the past several months, the political fervor has been high: candidate signs are stuck firmly in lawns, people are glued to CNN/YouTube debates and Bush countdown clocks adorn key chains and office desks.
To say the least, this election year is an important one, and TBG will be taking an in-depth look at one hopeful each month in an effort to get a conversation started on campus about who we want to run our country. By November, you should be well prepared to cast your ballot.
Students at MSU and on campuses nationwide have time to do many things. They attend classes, join sports teams, rush fraternities, throw parties and form clubs. MSU has two channels playing movies constantly, activities every weekend and more than 550 registered student organizations, in case we have any down time. However, the majority of college students forget to make time to exercise their democratic rights. College students everywhere are notorious for not voting. [oboma]
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, only 47 percent of citizens ages 18-25 vote in presidential elections, compared to 66 percent of those 25 and older. Most campaigns have therefore considered this age demographic a lost cause, and focus on older voters. But some candidates are altering this wave of apathy. The sudden emergence of Ron Paul on the campaign trail might be the most shocking, but the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has significant standing in this age group, especially on college campuses.
According to a recent article in TIME magazine, youth voters preferred Obama to his competitors in an unprecedented 4-1 ratio in Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucus. Overall, youth voter turnout increased by 135 percent. In the recent South Carolina primary, Obama came away with the win with 67 percent of the vote from those ages 18-29 that cast ballots. This surge in support can be partially attributed to grassroots organizing on college campuses.
Student organizations in support of Obama have been popping up all over the country, and MSU is no exception. “[Students for Barack Obama] is actually the only official student group of a presidential campaign,” political science senior Steve Ross said. “We’re the first in history.” Ross founded the MSU chapter of Students for Barack Obama (SFBO) in 2007, and it’s grown exponentially since then. “We were the first in the state to start up back in January of 2007, and since then, the group here on campus has grown to over 250 members,” Ross said. Ross is not only the founding member of MSU’s chapter of Students for Barack Obama; he also functions as the State of Michigan coordinator for SFBO.
Ross said he was interning on Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) re-election campaign in 2006 when he first met Barack Obama. “I think what really drew me to him was just his message. He’s truly an inspiring person and candidate.” Ross said. “I’ve met other politicians before, but when I met him, it was just a different feeling.” [ross]
Other students following politics thought the same thing. Soon a Facebook group sprung up in Obama’s support, and when he decided to run for the highest office in the U.S., Obama’s campaign team valued the strong youth support. According to Ross, the Obama campaign is launching a monumental movement to target the college demographic. “We have a youth vote department, and we’re the only campaign that has one of those. We have a full staff at our headquarters whose jobs are just devoted to working with youth,” Ross said.
And at least on MSU’s campus, that effort has paid off. Bryce Colquitt is the coordinator for MSU’s chapter of SFBO, and wants to make sure everybody in his chapter is included in the action. “Everybody on Students for Barack Obama is involved, and we’re active, and we’re doing things.”
When Michigan moved its primary up to January, it violated the rules of the Democratic National Convention. As a result, some candidates chose not to have their names on the Michigan ballot. Obama was one of the candidates who left his name off. As a result, Michigan’s ballot listed the candidates who chose to leave their names on and an ominous “uncommitted” blank.
The fact that Obama was not on the Michigan ballot impacted the ways in which MSU’s SFBO campaigned for him. The campaign could not technically tell voters to vote “uncommitted” on the Michigan primary, so they had focused their attention toward other early states in hopes of making a difference far from home. In any case, the MSU chapter was not sitting back and hoping for a nomination. “We’re going to be phone banking for the Nevada caucus and South Carolina primary, we’re going to have a rally for Barack here [at MSU]…we’ll have an info session where we’re looking to get some public officials who have endorsed Barack to come,” Colquitt said.
But in the meantime, the sparse ballot led some voters to abstain from voting. Voter turnout in all segments of the population was decidedly light. Various organizations advised people who wished to vote for Obama or Edwards to vote “uncommitted,” although the campaigns themselves did not tout this. Nonetheless, some uninformed voters were undoubtedly taken by surprise. In Emmet County, the uncommitted vote actually won over Hillary (the only big name left on the ballot). However, the State threw away all of the “write-in” ballots, and overall, the primary seemed like a farce to many Michigan voters.
But in other states, what exactly drew students out for Obama in such large numbers? According to Matt Robb, a political theory and history senior, he first became interested in Obama after his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). “I looked into him more, heard more of his speeches and realized his life story added up to his political story and his political message.”
Indeed, his story is one that doesn’t often make it on the ballot. Born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas, he lived in both Hawaii and Indonesia before attending Columbia University in New York. After his undergraduate education, Obama moved to Chicago, where he was a community organizer through his church. He attended Harvard for law school, and eventually rose from state to national senator in 2004.
After a lifetime’s worth of sketchy politicians, shady legislation and political scandal, it’s no wonder students are looking for a invigorating face. At just 45, in a field where most candidates are in their 50s or 60s (McCain tops the list at 71), Obama automatically fills the fresh requirement. In addition, his background as a community organizer is impressive to many.
For freshman Neeharika Tumati, it’s Obama’s attention to youth voters that is appealing. “He’s the one that wants students to go into public service as far as AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, so they can serve the nation without holding public office,” she said. “He sees the importance in making a difference in politics because it’s our generation, it’s our vote, and Barack really emphasizes that.”
Ross agrees. “I think what a lot of people are drawn to Barack about is he’s something so new. And a lot of people who’ve not been involved in politics before are interested all of a sudden because of Senator Obama.”
Latin Studies sophomore Julia Lathin first learned about Obama through her mother. “I remember my mom calling me over to the TV to watch him give [the 2004 DNC] speech and ever since then he’s been at the back of my mind.” [obama2]
In fact, many Obama supporters were first touched by his speech at the DNC during the 2004 election cycle. Both Robb and Tumati cite the speech as what fueled their initial interest in the senator. “I watched the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and saw his speech, and I definitely was very impressed. I picked up his book Dreams From My Father. When he decided he was going to run for president, I was ecstatic,” Tumati said.
Obama runs on a lot of hope, but his platform does contain concrete ideas. He advocates a return to responsible fiscal policies, massive immigration reforms and the modernization of the U.S. health care system, among other things. However, many on the opposing side say he is inexperienced, ill-prepared for foreign policy or harboring Muslim ideals. (Although Obama’s middle name is Hussein, he is a devout Christian.) His most criticized point among both youth and older voters is his lack of political experience.
“I don’t think he has enough experience,” journalism freshman Lauren Ahonen said. “I understand that he’s a charismatic guy, but you need more than a few years under your belt to run a country.” Ahonen isn’t exaggerating; Obama is the junior Senator from Illinois and was only elected in 2004. These are facts his competitors are quick to mention on the campaign trail.
[steve]Another question about Obama’s experience was highlighted in a recent South Carolina debate. Both Clinton and Edwards pointed out Obama has voted “present” on more than 100 occasions in his four years on the Senate. In other words, he chose not to take a stand on many issues one way or the other. So while he can legitimately claim not to have voted for the war in Iraq, as none of the other candidates can (he was not yet elected while that was on the table), his voting record leaves much to be desired. His record of myriad “present” votes leads some voters to question if, in trying to be a unifying figure, he is afraid to take determined stances on issues.
Despite hesitations and concerns about Obama as an effective leader, there is no doubt about it: on this campus and on campuses across the nation, Obama has overwhelming support from the youngest voting demographic. His Facebook group boasts the largest numbers of any candidate, and in Iowa, he drew out an unprecedented amount of youth support. There’s still a question as to whether that following will translate at the polls, but Obama supporters are optimistic.
“I think that we can get the nomination,” Robb said. “And if we do that, the general election will see unprecedented numbers. You’ll see more young people than we’ve ever seen, and not just by a little – by an exponential margin. And I believe that with all my heart.” If college students take their enthusiasm for Obama to the polls nationally for this primary, Obama could indeed win the nomination. One step at a time has been the traditional model for presidential campaigns, but according to a recent publicity surge from the Obama campaign, he’s ready to “Barack and Roll.”