Obama's "Hidden" Voters

Obama campaign volunteers, from left to right, Johanna Turner, 21, of Urbandale, Iowa, Laurie King, 17, of Ames, Iowa, and Chris Elsenbast, of Ames, Iowa, work in the campagn office in Ames, Iowa, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007. putting their faith in people like Chris Elsenbast, a 17-year-old high school senior in Ames, a college town just north of Des Moines. Elsenbast is head of Iowa State University's chapter of BarackStars, an organization set up by the campaign with groups throughout the state. (AP Photo/Kevin Sanders)
This column was written by Cora Currier.

Barack Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe released a memo last weekend making the case that Obama's lag in national polls is due to the exclusion of a "hidden vote" - namely, the ever-elusive youth vote. In the memo, Plouffe claims that traditional telephone polls miss young voters, because many of them don't have land-lines, only cell phones, and because they will be first-time primary voters.

The Chicago Sun-Times' Lynne Sweet called these voters "hidden souls in the Obama Army," and wondered whether "the campaign team for Obama can deliver them." This sort of skepticism consistently governs any discussion of the youth vote; the question is always whether, not when, or for whom. Last week I highlighted economic issues that could drive youth to the polls next year, but even I placed a caveat on my own generation's significance. For Obama's campaign to formally state their dependence on what is viewed as so flaky a demographic strikes me as both risky, and brave.

According to a variety of indicators, Obama does carry the youth vote. Non-traditional Internet polls and debates with larger rates of youth participation tend to favor Obama, and he edges out Hillary Clinton in youth-only-polls. The Facebook group "One Million Strong for Barack Obama" was recently passed in membership only by "Stop Hillary Clinton (One Million Strong AGAINST Hillary)" - certainly an indicative, if not an overly scientific, measure of general sentiment.

The campaign, Plouffe's memo suggests, wants to focus this general support to take what it claims are close primary competitions. In Iowa, Plouffe sees a "close three-way race," which "will likely explode with many new attendees." He claims that: "in more than one survey, Barack's support among Iowa young voters exceeded the support of all other candidates combined." Similarly, in South Carolina, Obama is looking to shore up African-American student and youth votes, in a race where the support of the black community is key. The campaign has targeted HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in South Carolina with appearances and "Camp Obama" training seminars, though in an interview with Black College Wire, Obama's communications advisor Candice Tolliver emphasized that "the campaign's dedication to engaging historically black institutions isn't limited to the early states but also reaches to all HBCUs."

Banking on the youth vote may well be a risky endeavor. But targeting it in specific primary contests does make sense. While overall youth turnout for the Democrats in 2006 was disappointing, they are credited with helping hand over tight races like Jim Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana. David Broder wrote a column in Sunday's Washington Post about youth participation in government, emphasizing, as is typical, distrust and apathy. His final statement, however, hinted at what I think might make the difference for the Obama campaign: "young people respond when they are treated seriously." Most young people say they don't vote because they don't feel politicians care what they have to say anyway. Obama is taking the gamble of taking them seriously, letting them know how vital they are to his campaign. Admitting what to most looks like a weakness may actually deliver some extra strength at the ballot box.
By Cora Currier
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation