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Obama's Ace in the Hole

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For months I've been on record saying, that all things being equal, Obama will handily win the election because of a new group of voters -- young Americans under 30 who have grown up digital and are flexing their political muscles for the first time.

These are the children of the baby boom, the Net Generation as I call them. In the last election, just under half of Americans under 30 voted. They made up 17 per cent of the total vote. But there's strong evidence that far more Net Geners will turn out this year, and most of their votes will go to Sen. Barack Obama. Fifteen million Net Geners may well be Obama's ace in the hole.

Youth turnout has been rising steadily since the 2000 presidential election, but this year it has soared. In many state primaries, turnout of young people doubled or even tripled compared with 2004. Young people, who overwhelmingly oppose both the Iraq war and the policies of President George W. Bush, have done more than just vote. They've jumped into politics -- their style of politics. They've used Facebook to share information at a phenomenal pace, raise money, and set up rallies -- mostly for Obama. They've used YouTube, in its infancy during the 2004 campaign, to reach millions of potential voters through music. Their Twitters have transformed the old-style news cycle.

They're pumped about this election, and they may decide the outcome of the race. That may come as a surprise to some pollsters, but consider what happened at the start of the primary season. In Iowa last January, Obama lost decisively to both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the 30 and over vote. Yet Obama won over young people -- by a 5 to 1 margin -- which was enough to propel him to victory.

They're still for Obama. Two-thirds of young people say they are Democrats. The youngest voters (age 18 to 24) favor Obama over McCain by a margin of more than 20 percentage points, according to John Della Volpe, director of polling for the Harvard Institute of Politics. It's unlikely that the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential nominee will change that, given that young people are considerably less socially conservative than she is.

Yet Obama's huge lead in the youth demographic may have been partially obscured by polling techniques. Although most pollsters do call people on cell phones, they still rely too heavily on land lines to get an accurate picture of young people's political leanings, according to Della Volpe. Half of young people age 18-24 do not have land line phones, he said, and they have sharply different political views than those with land lines about the big issues -- the war, the economy, and who should run the country.

After this new generation brings Obama to power this fall, they will certainly transform politics in the future. The new generation is turning into a political juggernaut that will dominate and change politics in America. They have the numbers to do so. By 2015, once they are all old enough to vote, they will be one-third of the voting public. They have at their fingertips the most powerful tool ever for informing, organizing and mobilizing. What's more they know how to use it effectively, by communicating directly with each other, instead of waiting for orders from campaign headquarters.

And they won't settle for politics as usual. Having grown up digital, they will want to be involved in the act of governing -- by contributing ideas before decisions are made. What's more, they'll insist on integrity from politicians; if politicians say one thing and do another, young Americans will use their digital tools to find out, and spread the news.

They may be a decisive factor on election day. And afterwards, they'll shake up the business of government. The new president will have a tiger by the tail.

Don Tapscott recently led a survey of 11,000 young people around the world. He has written 12 widely read books on the impact of the Internet on society. His 1996 book Growing Up Digital defined the Net Generation and the sequel, Grown Up Digital, will be published by McGraw Hill October 29.

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