Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is poised to unleash an army of young supporters across New Hampshire Saturday, in the first major statewide canvassing event of his presidential candidacy — and the first attempt of the 2008 campaign to translate online popularity into on-the-ground political organizing.
School's Out, Obama's In
The event's timing is no accident. It's designed to coincide with the end of the academic year for the legions of college students in Boston and throughout New England, as the Obama campaign seeks to turn the broad support it is enjoying among younger voters into an edge in the 2008 race.
"We need young people as part of our winning vote margin," said Hans Riemer, the Obama campaign's youth vote director and a former political director at Rock the Vote. "Our job is to leverage the entire campaign to effectively target young people, and get them out to vote. This is the campaign recognizing the realities on the ground."
Plenty of previous presidential campaigns have leaned on younger voters, but few such efforts have lived up to the hype.
Voters younger than 30 accounted for about 14 percent of voters in the 2004 Democratic primaries, down from 17 percent in 1992.
They were the one age group that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., won in his 2004 race against President Bush, but they didn't provide enough of a margin to overcome Bush's advantage among older voters.
And relying on politically naive college students and other young professionals to execute a campaign's ground game can be a risky proposition.
In one example that quickly became legendary in political circles, Howard Dean's 2004 campaign put droves of young volunteers to work canvassing Iowa. They turned voters off -- and drew widespread ridicule for their fluorescent orange hats.
Obama aides say they've learned lessons from Dean and other campaigns and are determined not to repeat past mistakes.
Building from informal online groups of Obama supporters — particularly Students for Barack Obama, which launched on college campuses before the senator even announced his presidential candidacy — they are seeking to integrate students and other young voters into fundraising, canvassing and get-out-the-vote activities.
Sacrificing Beer, Pizza for a Cause
So far, Students for Barack Obama counts more than 300 chapters on college campuses.
To promote engagement, the group is organizing small-dollar fundraising efforts -- give up pizza for a week or 10 iTune downloads and give the money to the Obama campaign instead.
Alex Cutler, a political science student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, created a Facebook.com site called "I Donated a Case of Beer to Barack Obama."
With a link to an online fundraising site, he helped bring in $1,000 for Obama in the first quarter of 2007. His site now boasts 409 members.
"We asked people to forgo the case of beer for the weekend to give Obama money to change politics," Cutler said.
Aside from the fundraising efforts, the Obama campaign is putting together a schedule of summer events to keep students who have expressed interest in the campaign active going into the crucial fall period, said Meredith Segal, director of Students for Barack Obama and a junior at Bowdoin College in Maine.
"The campaign has very much embraced the idea of students being involved," said Segal, a 21-year-old neuroscience major.
Young, Restless Voters?
Judging from social networking sites and early donations, Democrats hold a clear edge in online organizing this campaign, and Obama has enjoyed more Internet success than the other Democratic candidates, said Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of techpresident.com, which tracks online statistics of the presidential campaign.
Only former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., whose campaign is encouraging voter-generated content, is in Obama's league when it comes to embracing technology, he said.
While Obama's success in organizing supporters through Web sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com gives him a giant pool of potential campaign volunteers, it does not guarantee eventual campaign success, Rasiej said.
"[Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.] would die to have that kind of human-resource pool to reach into," he said, "but the jury's out as to how much of [an] online community can be converted into actual donations, action and ultimately votes."
He said some campaign efforts to mobilize online support would surely fall short, but said all campaigns had to at least start experimenting.
"The politician or the campaign that doesn't recognize the potential of the Internet is simply waiting to be included in the section on dinosaurs in Wikipedia," Rasiej said.
When it comes to knocking on doors, Obama campaign workers say they're going to be more careful than the Dean campaign, which took in volunteers from across the country and dispatched them -- with the orange hats -- to obscure corners of Iowa after as little as 30 minutes of training.
"Everybody realizes what a disaster that was, so we have to be a little bit more organized," said Riemer, the youth coordinator. "We'll be attentive to who we're putting out in the field, and try to match people culturally to where they belong. No orange hats. No alien invaders."