Social issues prove key to bringing out the youth vote
SYNDEY SHIVERS (19) could think of more enjoyable ways to spend a midweek evening. But, right now she’s in a windowless basement, cold-calling voters around Virginia to persuade them to vote for Barack Obama.
Some people slam the phone down. Others are in the mood for an argument. Quite a few, though, are willing to engage and talk through the issues.
“The stakes are even higher now than they were the last time,” says Shivers, a politics student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Among young people, there’s still that energy there and the realisation that President Obama is the best candidate for the job.” Across the country, the crowds coming to see Obama may be smaller and the candidate greyer. But college towns like Charlottesville are proving to be crucial in his bid to re-energise a young constituency that was critical in propelling him to the White House four years ago.
But the country has changed since then. The ranks of the under-30s include more than 15 million Americans who, like Sydney Shivers, can vote for the first time. In contrast to the atmosphere of hope and change that defined the last election campaign, those newly eligible to vote have come of age in the worst economic downturn since the depression. With college degrees or, worse, without them, they are entering a far more uncertain world than it has been for many previous generations.
Unemployment, by US standards, is still stubbornly high, the gap between rich and poor is growing, while recent polls indicate that a slim majority define success as “not falling behind”. For many, this represents a shuddering downgrading of expectations.
“Change was possible because you made it possible,” Obama told a gathering of almost 8,000 people at a pavilion near the University of Virginia in recent weeks. “So you can’t get tired now because we’ve got more work to do.” But for many, the lack of meaningful change has been frustrating.
There is a sense among many young people that Obama remains popular not because he has done an incredible job, but because he’s done the best he can under strained circumstances.
Ben Pickus (20), an environmental science student at the University of Virginia, was too young to vote in the last election so he volunteered for the Obama campaign. This time around he he’s still supporting the president but hasn’t given his time to the campaign. “He’s struggled to do the things he wanted to do over the past four years so, yes, it’s been more difficult to electrify people in the same way as 2008, but I’ll still support him, no doubt about it.”