On the night after President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, his regional field director and youth vote director for Charlottesville stood at the front of a 150-seat lecture hall at the University of Virginia, sharing re-election plans with 20 members of the University Democrats.
Volunteer coordinators for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign began their work on UVA’s campus this month. In 2008 a record 4,000 UVA students registered to vote, thanks in large part to enthusiasm for Obama. (James Berglie-Zuma Press)
Before the talk ended, Alexa Kissinger and Rachael Klarman beamed onto the projection screen a memorable 2008 Obama stump speech, delivered in a downpour at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg.
“Sometimes, the skies grow cloudy, and it’s dark,” Obama preached. “And you think the rains will never pass. But here’s what I understand: As long as all of us are together, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Nearly four years later, the dark clouds and rains have yet to pass for young people, and that could have profound implications for Obama’s re-election bid. Polls now show waning support for Obama in a voting bloc that played a large role in powering him to the Oval Office. In 2008, two-thirds of the under-30 crowd voted for Obama, the largest margin of victory within any age group since the Pew Research Center started tracking such statistics in 1972. However, a recent Harvard University study found that the President’s approval rating among Millennials has dropped 12 percentage points in the last two years, prompting the question: Will young voters blame Obama for their predicament? And if they do, can he still win Virginia and extend his White House stay?
An early look at Charlottesville revealed that the Obama brand, while bruised, is alive, well, and poised to plug back in to a network that registered more than 28,000 new city voters—a record—in 2008.
The new ground troops
The local leaders of Obama’s re-election bid are young, ambitious, and committed, much like in 2008, when UVA registered a school record 4,000 students to vote. Kissinger, Charlottesville’s field director, took eight classes last semester to graduate early from Arizona State University, solely so she could work on the campaign. She also deferred enrollment to Harvard Law until 2013 and has opted to live in Charlottesville with a host family until November.
“If I were sitting in a classroom or out in an office somewhere, I’d be thinking, ‘Man, I’m not out there,’” she said.
James Schwab, UVA junior and president of the University Democrats, caught the political bug working 70-hour weeks as a summer volunteer for Tom Perriello’s re-election campaign in 2010. He and other college students will play a pivotal role in re-energizing 2008 Obama supporters, Schwab said.
“When college kids get excited, that excitement expands out into the community,” he said. “They’re willing to knock on doors and talk to people. Voting number is a small part of what college students can do for the election process.”
Kissinger, Schwab’s University Democrats and Hoos for Obama have already hit the streets, hosting voter registration drives at Alderman Library and Bodo’s Bagels, walking door to door around town, and manning phone banks at C’ville Coffee and New Cabell Hall.
“The great thing about the Obama campaign is its sense of team,” Kissinger said. “Giving responsibility to these teams allows them to bond, and it gets the volunteers on them more excited.”
The Millennial challenge
While teamwork might spur excitement, the crucial element for Team Obama among Millennials will be crafting a message that convinces them he and his government have made their lives better—no small task given the data.
In 2011, the jobless rate among 18- to 24-year-olds reached 16.3 percent, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. Also, one in four 18- to 34-year-olds moved back home with their parents, and nearly half said they took a job they didn’t want just to pay the bills. To boot, 30 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds have more than $10,000 in personal debt—excluding mortgages, according to a poll conducted by the non-partisan group Demos.
If you’re 24, burdened with college loans and underemployed at Starbucks, will you happily vote Barack in 2012?
Emily Blakemore, a 2010 UVA graduate and leader of Hoos for Obama in 2008, was so affected by her time working to elect Obama that she is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Though she intends to support him in November, Blakemore has been dissatisfied with Obama’s communication skills.
“I’m an avid reader of politics, but I feel like if you talk to the average voter, they’re not hearing all the good things,” she said. “And I was happy we got the health care deal, but I hated the process with which we did it. At some point, he had to let go of that rhetoric of ‘We’re not a black America or a white America, we’re the United States of America,’ but I don’t know. It makes me kick myself.”
Also, she is not sure what to tell many of her friends—recent college graduates—who are struggling to find jobs.
“That’s where my own knowledge fails me,” Blakemore said. “I think they have a right to feel disappointed.”
Blakemore’s biggest fear for her peers is that their financial woes will lead to civic apathy.
“I don’t see Romney making it any better,” she said. “My fear is losing people from the political process altogether.”
Kissinger is stationed in town to prevent that from happening. She plans to correct the misperceptions of Obama’s economic decisions. Recent upticks in employment figures show that his policies are starting to work, she said.
“I think we could do a better job of messaging those successes and showing that Democratic policies have helped,” Kissinger said. “But it’s complicated messaging that, right? I don’t have a good sound bite for that. All I know is my friends are able to get jobs now that seniors when I was a freshman were not able to get.”