BOULDER– National leaders of the Obama reelection campaign recently told students gathered on the University of Colorado campus here that winning swing-state Colorado is among the highest priorities for the campaign and that youth voters are the linchpin in this year’s victory strategy.
The meeting came on the Wednesday of midterm week just days before spring break, so officials said they were encouraged but not surprised by the fact that roughly 150 students turned out. They told the Colorado Independent that young people seemed at least as energized in their support for Obama this year as they were in 2008, when members of the 18-to-29-year-old demographic voted for Obama over Republican rival John McCain by a record-setting two-thirds majority.
“Young voters. They’re the X-factor,” said a Colorado campaign official, shaking his head, raising his eyebrows and leaving his mouth open in a way that meant obviously!
A national staffer told the Independent that the reelection campaign, free from the need to wage a Democratic Party primary fight this year, is seizing on the advantage of time to ramp up outreach to young people and to enlist them early and in greater numbers to take on the kind of vital voter-contact and registration efforts young Obama supporters excelled at in 2008.
Indeed, the Obama event in Boulder was already the ninth of the “Greater Together Student Summits” the campaign has hosted at swing-state campuses since February, part of a campaign initiative launched last October. The summits lean heavily on promotion through online networks and usually feature celebrities in addition to senior campaign staffers and local Obama campaign volunteers.
Although pitched as an interactive discussion of key policy issues, the meeting in Boulder had the feel of a traditional campaign rally mashed up with a corporate motivational seminar.
Staffers, dressed in neat casual attire, sat on high stools and passed a microphone back and forth before an enormous screen bearing Power Point-style slides, tweeted questions from the audience and, to wrap the event, the 17-minute campaign video called “The Road We’ve Traveled” made by Davis Guggenheim, the producer and director behind blockbuster documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Waiting for Superman” and “It Might Get Loud.”
The narrative arc of the film appears to have set the pattern for the campaign’s summit presentations.
It begins by listing the crises that met the Obama administration on inauguration day in 2009 and then underlines the series of decisions made by the president to address them. A somber soundtrack thrums as references to disasters from 2009 roll across the screen: the mortgage debacle, the frozen financial markets, the failing Wall Street firms, the skyrocketing national debt, the impending auto-industry collapse and the avalanche of job loss.
Obama Adviser David Axelrod stares into the camera with weary eyes and drooping mustache and describes his state of mind during a post-election briefing on the economy.
“All I was thinking at that moment was Can we get a recount?”
Students at the summit responded to the film’s opening catalog of horrors with a mix of groans and ironic or exasperated laughs.
Obama for America Policy Director James Kvaal argued that young people should not view the 2012 election as a mere retread of 2008. It’s no less pressing, he said, even if it may seem less historic. He highlighted initiatives taken by the administration over the last four years of particular interest to young people: health care reform, middle class tax breaks and expansions in gay rights, tuition assistance and the renewable energy sector.
“This reelection is different from other reelections,” he said. “We’ve done a lot… but the important thing to remember is that we’re not done. If you compare it to the Bush reelection campaign of 2004, for example, at that point, President Bush had essentially carried out what he had set out to do. We were already engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and he had cut taxes for the wealthy twice. He didn’t do that much in his second term.
“All of the Republican candidates for president have vowed to roll back the progress we’ve made. There truly is a tremendous amount at stake… There is much left to do.”
Several speakers touched on a theme sure to be repeated often before November when they argued that all of the Republican candidates for president were vowing to repeal or defund laws and programs they disliked but that they offered no alternative plans to take the place of those laws and programs.
“Mitt Romney wants to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act,” said OFA National Operation Vote Director Buffy Wicks. “There are 2.5 million Americans in their twenties who now have access to health insurance through their parents’ plans. That includes 44,000 young Coloradans. Romney is running to take away health insurance from 44,000 Coloradans. What is he offering in exchange?”
“Think of the time and energy Republicans have dedicated to getting rid of Planned Parenthood,” she said later in response to a question on where the candidates stand on women’s issues. “This is something that provides the sharpest contrast– the low-cost preventive care, STD screening, well-women visits [provided by Planned Parenthood]… Again, what are the Republicans offering in exchange?”
Summit attendees interviewed by the Colorado Independent after the event rated it mostly successful.
“It could have been more interactive, less of a lecture format and more focused on action. Practical stuff. What do we do now? What are the next steps?” said Rhiannon Riccillo, a CU senior from Pueblo, who volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008.
“The message was motivating, though… I guess it’s time to get started again. Since 2010, you can really see the Republican agenda. I mean, close Planned Parenthood? End contraception?”
As the Colorado Independent has recently reported, youth-vote analysts have been parsing statistics from the last two presidential elections and watching turnout so far for this year’s Republican primary, and they are concluding that the GOP seems effectively to be writing off the youth vote.
“Are the [Republican] candidates making an effort to get young people to participate? Are they speaking to youth? I see very little of it,” Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, told the Colorado Independent.
The Obama campaign is clearly keyed in to the ground game mechanics that researchers at the Pew Foundation and scholars like University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket have explored in depth since 2008. Young people didn’t just vote for Obama, according to the researchers, they were also unusually active in his campaign. Nearly 30 percent of young Obama voters said they attended at least one campaign event that year. Those mobilized supporters mobilized more supporters.
In Colorado and the other battleground states, Pew found that young people were contacted in much greater numbers by the Obama campaign than were contacted by the McCain campaign. Battleground youth voters were also more likely to be contacted than were older battleground voters, which Pew reported was a “significant reversal from past patterns.”
In a few key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida and Indiana, the percentage of young voters contacted by the Obama campaign reached up to 50 percent and 60 percent, doubling and tripling McCain campaign efforts and notching some of Obama’s biggest and/or most significant point spreads on Election Night.
The Obama campaign’s “Greater Together” effort is being launched with the guidance of top staffers and it has been underway for months. It has also carved out a major presence at the reelection website.
The campaign for GOP frontrunner Romney by contrast seems to have no staffers dedicated to the youth vote. There is no youth-voter section listed at the campaign website. And the campaign message for young people, according to Kiesa, is centered almost entirely on paying down the national debt.
Messages left with the Romney campaign were not immediately returned.
[ Image: Screen shot from “The Road We’ve Traveled“ ]