Obama's Millennial Marketers

December 8, 2008 | By Mary Gilbert

President-elect Barack Obama wouldn't have that new title if not for voters in their teens and twenties, according to those who study youth voting patterns. More than just voting for him 2-to-1 over John McCain, young people -- part of the so-called Millennial Generation -- were the "sales force" that marketed Obama to the nation, said Eric Greenberg, author of Generation We, a book about Millennials and politics.

Thousands of young people volunteered for the Obama campaign this year, knocking on doors and making phone calls. What distinguished this army of Obama supporters from recent volunteer-heavy campaigns such as those run by George W. Bush or Howard Dean, according to Greenberg, was that "they were professionally trained and they were professionally organized. And they learned how to delegate authority and use others to actually get their message across."

One of the ways young people spread that message was by convincing friends and family members to vote for their guy. Rob Abraham, 23, an Obama volunteer-turned-staffer who worked in Georgia and Pennsylvania, recounted telling his parents to "do this for me." He speculated that his generation's enthusiasm for Obama helped make up for some of the candidate's inexperience in the mind of older voters.

"They saw that if we were able to become so passionate about him, this must mean something," Abraham said. The involvement of young people also "helped to contribute to the overall idea of how inclusive the entire process was," he argued, and built the image of the Obama campaign as a movement.

As a share of total votes, 18-to-29-year-olds represented 18 percent of the electorate this year, up just 1 point from the last presidential election. But turnout rose an estimated 4-5 percentage points among this age group, compared with just 1 percent for voters overall, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. And for the first time in several cycles, young people outnumbered senior voters, who made up 16 percent of the total.

Voters under 30 this year broke 66 percent to 32 percent for Obama -- an unprecedented partisan split for this demographic, which on average favored the Democratic candidate by just 1.8 points from 1976 to 2004. Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, called this cycle's dramatic gap "a real display of clout" on the part of young people. "That's the kind of thing that should startle Republicans," he added.

David All, founder of the David All Group, a conservative Web agency, says that Millennials are costing the GOP races up and down the ticket, but that the party has not even begun to think about how to win this group back: "I kind of feel like Republicans are pointing at the squirrel that's been run over by the car 25 times and they keep saying, 'Look, it's dead.'"

There is a "road map to winning back young Americans," All maintains, but the GOP needs both a new message and a new medium. He pointed to the Obama campaign's use of text messaging as something Republicans need to learn how to emulate but added that such efforts needed to come from the bottom up. "We don't need 50-year-old men text-messaging people," All said. "We need 20-year-old kids text-messaging other 20-year-old kids and teaching others how to do it."

Another thing that might be keeping GOP operatives awake at night: Millennials may continue to grow as a share of the total voting population, particularly for the next three presidential elections. Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and Center for American Progress and co-author of 2002's The Emerging Democratic Majority, projects that by 2020, Millennials (whom he defines as those born between 1978 and 2000) will number 90 million eligible voters -- nearly 40 percent of the country's total. "The Millennial earthquake has begun, and American politics will never be the same," Teixeira wrote in a recent article.

What caused young people to swing so strongly toward the Democratic candidate? Citing data from a Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future survey, Teixeira argued that this generation has "exceptionally progressive views on social and policy issues," which aligned them with Democrats in 2006 and 2008. According to the poll, the issues young people say they care most about include universal health care, the war in Iraq and repealing the Bush tax cuts.

Compared with previous generations, Millennials are also more civic-minded and politically engaged. UCLA's American Freshman survey showed that in 2006, 34 percent of college freshmen claimed to talk about politics frequently with their peers, the highest level in the poll's 40-year history. And an online poll this October of 18-to-24-year-olds found more than two-thirds of respondents said political engagement was an "effective way" to solve the country's problems.

Those views may have predisposed young voters to Obama's message, but Kat Barr, political outreach director for Rock the Vote, argues that these voters were already "engaging themselves" before Obama came along. "They were using the tools out there to get each other involved," she said. The Obama campaign merely figured out how to tap into the groundswell of young activism.

Millennials live their lives on the Internet, and an October survey of 18-to-29-year-olds from Democracy Corps/Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research demonstrates that this is where their political discussion was happening in 2008. Fifty-three percent of respondents reported watching a campaign TV ad online, 45 percent reading a political blog and 30 percent forwarding a political video to a family or friend. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said that they "friended" one of the candidates on Facebook, MySpace or a similar social networking site.

The challenge now is for the new administration to keep young people engaged, but that's "not rocket science -- it's political science," quipped Alexandra Acker, national head of Young Democrats of America. Simply by keeping up the dialogue, she said, Obama could do much to hold on to his support among this growing, Web-savvy demographic.

In a sign that Obama's team plans to do just that, supporters on Wednesday received the campaign's version of a comment card, an e-mail invitation to participate in an online survey. Along with detailed demographic data-mining, the survey asks supporter to rank particular goals for the new administration: passing legislation, electing state and local leaders with a similar vision, training volunteers and working on local issues to improve smaller communities. It also inquires about what issue areas respondents would be interested in volunteering or organizing around.

The day after the election, his campaign began building a new Web site, Change.Gov, to recruit volunteers and job applicants. And this week, Obama released the first-ever presidential YouTube address.

The Web doesn't have to benefit just one party, All insists, pointing to the failure of Republicans to capitalize on a few early missteps from the Obama transition team. For example, when Obama initially posted his agenda on his transition site, only to take it back down, Republicans didn't "call him out on" not being transparent and open. Moreover, no Republican put up an alternative to that agenda.

"We don't even have a modern apparatus to fight back against this guy," All lamented. "There doesn't seem to be any kind of modern war room or anyone in the Republican Party paying attention to what Barack Obama is doing."

But when Democrats take power in January, they'll face their own challenges maintaining the support that won them the White House. Teixeira emphasized that Obama and the Democratic majority on the Hill need to deliver on their campaign promises in order to prove that government truly can solve the big problems. If they fail to do that, young people could get disillusioned; if they are successful, Teixeira said, Democrats could have the chance to parlay Obama's success with Millennials into a more enduring base of support.