"Avenues that extend to the farthest corners of Manhattan meet in Washington Square Park's massive plaza. The place is enormous, but for all the concrete, there are also huge stretches of New York City grass - not quite Central Park, but it still feels like you're standing in unofficial quad of NYU. At the moment, there's another reason for that. The place is overflowing with thousands of young people - many of them college students - who have packed the park this humid Thursday to hear Illinois Senator Barack Obama speak.
The crowd, which has waited hours in the hot afternoon glare, slowly inches through metal detector lines. It includes seven members of the Yale for Obama campus organization, led by its campaign coordinator Ben Lazarus; the group left class early to hop a 3:30 p.m. Metro-North train earlier in the afternoon. Just when impatience is beginning to build, an electric excitement abruptly begins moving in waves through the crowd. "Where is he? Where is he!" yells a nearby supporter. It's so jumbled and crowded, nobody can really see where exactly Obama is emerging onstage, but everyone knows that he is. Finally he's before us. The security guards finally give up and let the remaining people waiting in metal detector lines run straight through. This isn't a political speech - it's a rock concert.
Obama fever has swept through college campuses since he announced his candidacy last winter, and his speeches are drawing outrageously large crowds. Yet for all the youth excitement, Obama is slowly lagging farther and farther behind the Democratic presidential frontrunner, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. According to the most recent national polls, Clinton is easily outdistancing Obama. In a from Sun., Sept. 16, she led him by 21 points (43 percent to 22 percent), and in a Gallup poll the same day, by 22 (47 percent to 25 percent). In head-to-head match-ups with Obama or Clinton facing the top Republican candidate, Rudy Guliani, Clinton does far better - beating Guliani by 5 to 10 percent - while Obama is about even, almost uniformly across demographic groups. There is one extreme exception: college students.
In a June survey of over a thousand current university students, Democracy Corps/Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research projected that Obama would beat Guliani by a staggering margin of 27 points, whereas Clinton would lose by 8 - a colossal 35 point swing. Polls on the Daily Kos website and Democrats.com - sites much more frequently visited by young voters than the general population - show a clear preference for Obama over Hillary (25 percent to 3 percent in the Daily Kos poll and 18 percent to 9 percent in the Democrats.com poll). Obama fever (and stale Clinton apathy) on liberal college campuses is not just a feeling; it is a reality, and Yale is no different.
Yale for Obama, founded last spring, has emerged as the largest campus student group in support of a presidential candidate by far. Brendan Gants, the communications director for Yale for Obama, estimates their e-mail panlist contains about 250 students, with more than 500 students in the Facebook group. Yale Students for Hillary - also formed last spring - has, by contrast, about 40 students on its panlist. Yale for Edwards, Students for Giuliani, and Yale for Ron Paul are new political groups that have formed this fall.
While Facebook may not be the most reliable gauge of student support, it is clear that Obama enjoys greater support among Yale students (and other college students) than any of the rest of the presidential candidates. What is it about Obama that appeals so much to the collegiate soul? In talking to students across the political spectrum about the appeal of Obama, words like "change," "fresh perspective," and "new hope" come up again and again. Lazarus said that "college kids look at politics right now and they're turned off by the fact that it has very little substance." According to Gants, "a lot of young voters are coming to the conclusion that in 2008 it's not just enough to change parties, we need a more fundamental change."
Yet so far, Obama can't seem to cash in on youth enthusiasm, and whether he can turn hype to primary votes when it matters most this winter is questionable at best, and historically doomed at worst.
Obama is not the first charismatic primary candidate to garner more support among college students than the general population. Newsweek Chief Political Correspondent Howard Fineman reflected that in the past, the hip, fashionably youth-friendly candidate has traditionally been thrown into the wastebasket of Democratic presidential politics. "Obama is the latest iteration of a litany of unsuccessful Democratic candidates who all exuded a kind of cool, stylish image," Fineman said. "The trend goes back to Gary Hart (the 'western cowboy'), Bill Bradley (the athlete and permanently cast college student), and Howard Dean (the one "from the land of Ben and Jerry's" and the first to use the Internet to mobilize support). Obama is the ultimate combination of all these things: the Internet-dominant rock star, handsome, and multi-cultural. But whatever this 'it' factor is, they all had it, and they all lost."
Stuart Allen recalls organizing Students for Gore during the 2000 primary, and "facing a campus more focused on the 'hipper' candidate, then in the form of Senator Bill Bradley."
Among Obama supporters, Lazarus recognizes that Howard Dean, like Bradley, generated the same kind of support in 2004 and failed to win the primary; the key for Lazarus is "to figure out how to turn student support into votes in the primaries in order to realize Obama's vision."
Simply put, student fervor doesn't seem to be quite enough to win your party's nomination. What is it ,then, that creates such a gulf between student and majority public opinion? Adam Simon, a Yale political science professor who teaches a popular undergraduate class on public opinion, cites "anti-establishmentarianism, seeking novelty, and being more open to less familiar political figures" as the reasons for Obama's popularity among college students, and adds that "young people sometimes forget that Hillary Clinton was once new."