First Person: Brigid Callahan Harrison

Reflection on Election 2008

Photo: Mike Peters

Brigid Callahan Harrison

In the wake of his inauguration, one of the key takeaway points of President Obama’s election is that the nature of politics among young people has changed drastically. The 2008 presidential election does much to dispel the notion that the young are apathetic, that they don’t care about politics, and that they don’t participate in the political life of their nation. It was because of young people—college students in particular—that Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, defeating his Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton. And that powerhouse of young, organized voters was a significant force in helping him win election in November.

In the 2008 election, the turnout rate among young voters (those aged 18-29) spiked to 53 percent. This growth comes after an 11 percent increase in turnout in 2004, making the 2008 turnout rate among young voters equal to or higher than any election since 1972, the first election in which 18-year-olds were allowed to vote. But more important than turnout was their strong preference as a group for Barack Obama. In the 2008 election, 66 percent of all voters aged 18 to 29 voted for Obama, fully 10 percent more than those young voters who voted for John Kerry in 2004. Their support of Obama reflected the most lopsided breakdown of any age group in modern presidential politics.

Part of Obama’s success in mobilizing the youth vote came about because of who he is. His message of change, his message of hope resonated with young people. Part of his success also depended on his enviable organization and strategy. In particular, no other presidential candidate has capitalized on new technologies—the modus operandi of the Millennial Generation—in the way that the Obama campaign did. The Obama Web site was sophisticated, regular e-mails kept supporters informed and managed to help raise record-breaking sums of money (oftentimes from college students contributing money using Mom’s Visa Checkcard). The campaign effectively monitored blogs and used them to help eradicate smear campaigns before the rumors gained traction in traditional media outlets. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace enabled supporters to use netroots to organize campaign activities, and Twitter helped keep campaign staffers and volunteers informed and on message.

Indeed, during the 2008 campaign, students in my Campaign Politics course, who had the opportunity to work on the Obama and McCain campaigns, learned how effectively technology could be used to help them help candidate Obama. Students were offered the opportunity to use the Internet to access the Obama campaign’s phone database of undecided voters in Pennsylvania, a battleground state in this campaign. Using the Web site, a student sitting in Paterson, New Jersey could spend her afternoon calling voters in Delaware County, urging them to go out and vote for Obama.

But part of Obama’s success in mobilizing the youth vote also came about because of who they are. Today’s college students, socialized in a post-9/11 world, are patriotic but war weary, and willing to buy in to a message of hope. They are more likely to participate in the civic lives of their communities than any other generation, volunteering many hours tutoring children or working in food banks. While in high school, three-quarters of them volunteered their time in their communities (compared with 65 percent in 1975), 13 percent did so regularly (compared to 7.8 percent in 1975). The most important reason for volunteering? Most young people report that their goal is “to help other people.” Their optimism, their concern for the civic lives of their communities and their nation, their technical know-how, and their willingness to participate in politics are important characteristics of this generation. These characteristics were recognized and cultivated by the Obama campaign.

The 2008 presidential election reflected a watershed in politics, and demonstrated the initial flex of the political muscle of the Millennial Generation. This group is large enough—and it appears motivated enough—to shape political life in the United States for decades to come. Just as the Baby Boomer Generation has had a determining role in politics since their coming of age in the 1960s, so, too, can the Millennial Generation alter our political landscape to the mid-century mark and beyond.

Brigid Callahan Harrison is Professor of Political Science and Law. Her most recent book is American Democracy Now, (2009, McGraw-Hill Publishers).