Commentators are talking, and rightly so, about how young voters are flocking to Barack Obama. Their overwhelming support gave Obama his Iowa margin, kept him just a few points behind in New Hampshire and Nevada, and contributed to his massive South Carolina victory. Young voters haven't always turned out historically, but they're responding to Obama's message, and together with his equally massive support from African Americans and strong appeal to independents, their passionate enthusiasm could help him expand the Democratic base enough not only to win in November, but to win decisively.
Obama also offers the chance to make this new generation part of an enduring Democratic coalition -- because once young voters support a particular party a few times in a row, they're likely to gravitate toward that party for the rest of their lives.
That so many young Obama supporters are turning out to rally, volunteer and vote suggests that he might be one of those watershed candidates who really can bring a new generation into politics and help shape their long-term loyalties, permanently enlarging the Democratic share of the electorate. But because of Hillary Clinton's attacks on Obama, she risks destroying this shift just as it's beginning to emerge.
Look at the historical patterns: Studies from the past 50 years find that party loyalties tend to form early -- for Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. It was true for the FDR generation, for those who came of age during the anti-war activism of the late Vietnam era, and with the young adults who helped cascade Reagan into office and whose compatriots have remained more conservative ever since.
Major historical events like wars and economic depressions can shift this. So can political scandals and personal crises and conversions. Systematic organizing efforts can also shift voters' worldview and context, particularly for those politically detached, which is one reason unions matter so much. Still, some major patterns get set early on, and that's likely to keep being true.
Generations need several elections to cement the pattern. The votes of 18- to 29-year-olds started shifting back in the Clinton years. Young voters gave Clinton an initial 9 point margin and increased it the next round, but their turnout dropped from the highest since 18-year-olds got the vote to the lowest in the same period.. In 2000, Gore led Bush among this group buy 3%, with Ralph Nader bleeding off another 5%. Led by increases in young African American and Latino voters, they were the only generation to favor Kerry, and did so by a ten percent margin.
These shifts accelerated in 2006. Fueled by the Bush administration's myriad disasters, young voters played a critical role, supporting Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by a massive 60% to 38% difference. They did so in every region of the country, from a three to one split in the East to a three point margin in the South. They provided the critical margin for Senators Tester, Webb and McCaskill, and fed the victories of the four other victorious challengers. Had it been up to young Americans alone, the Democrats would have also won Senate campaigns in Tennessee, Arizona, and Nevada; Ned Lamont would have defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, and a slew of additional House seats would have changed hands. The Democrats would have elected Senators from 26 states, with Republicans carrying just four.
The passion of young people for Obama's campaign is fueled by the Iraq war, an uncertain economy, major concerns about the environment and global warming, and the religious right's attacks on sexuality. But more than anything it's also fueled by Obama's eloquent insistence that change is possible and that ordinary citizens can play a key role. It's fueled by the sense that Obama's personal story anticipates the story of an America that moves beyond its divisions and tackles our fundamental problems. This group also seems to resist the idea that a presidency can simply be handed down like a dynastic succession.
Participating in numbers we haven't seen in decades, these new voters fervently want Obama to win. They're reaching out to enlist their peers and volunteering to help reach others. They can be a powerful force to help him prevail.
But if Hillary Clinton is nominated, this momentum will likely crumble. The young women and men who've been flooding the Democratic primaries and caucuses will feel betrayed by a candidate who's just finished doing her best to destroy the person they've invested their hopes in. And as a result, they may simply stay home. It's not just that Hillary is running against Obama. That would be fine. It's that she and Bill and their surrogates have relentlessly assaulted Obama's character, in a scorched-earth style worthy of Karl Rove. I've devoted an entire article to documenting just a fraction of these instances: her lying about his record (and her on) on critical Iraq and Iran votes, and his votes on abortion choice; her unleashing surrogates like civil rights activist turned WalMart pitchman Andy Young to explain how Obama really wasn't black enough or Black Entertainment Television CEO Robert Johnson (a virulently anti-union corporate head who's backed Bush on issues like the estate tax and privatizing Social Security) to refer to Obama's youthful cocaine use, with Clinton standing next to him at a South Carolina rally. When Hillary says Obama has no right to build up "false hopes," and Bill calls Obama's vision of history "a fairy tale," how can Obama's young supporters not feel attacked in their own hope and dreams? Had Clinton run a less-harsh campaign, like that of John Edwards, she might expect to inherit Obama's passionate young voters--and volunteers. But given the virulence of her attacks, I just can't see them suddenly turning on a dime and enthusiastically supporting her.
Young voters are historically the least likely to participate. The failure of the Democrats to stop Bush's Iraq war has already made many cynical. Obama has reversed this cynicism, but if Clinton crushes the dreams of his supporters, a great many will stay home in disgust. Or, if they do end up voting, they certainly won't work to turn out their peers. As a friend said of his community college students, "the most active ones in my class say they won't even vote for her if she's nominated."
The same is true, of course, of African American voters. The Clinton campaign's attempts to cage Obama in a racial box (for instance by Bill Clinton's dismissing his massive South Carolina victory as just an echo of Jesse Jackson 's 1984 and 1988 campaigns) could have an equally disastrous impact on African American turnout if Hillary Clinton is the nominee come November. Clinton also risks the defection of people who fit neither demographic, but are simply so furious at her support for Bush's Iraq and Iran policies and her massive corporate ties, that they simply cannot let themselves vote for her. I get those responses every time I write on the subject. Taken together, if these groups stay home (and Republicans mobilized by Hillary-hatred turn out), it's easy to see how a candidate like John McCain could transform a prime Democratic opportunity into yet another needless defeat.
If the youth vote affected only the upcoming election, the stakes would be massive. But it's worse yet because Clinton's nomination would likely shift the future votes of a generation. If I thought Barack Obama were simply an empty suit, I'd be skeptical too. Like any political leader, he has his weaknesses. I wish he'd deferred less to the senior Senate leadership on issues like Iraq. But then I look at his record engaging and bringing together once-powerless individuals and communities, speaking out against the war, and linking our health care crisis to his mother dying of cancer while her insurance company tried to throw her off their rolls. I value his stress on empowering ordinary citizens to act. I see enough actions of courage and vision to suggest his presidency might just be able to equal the sum of his powerful words. Then I look at Clinton and wonder why she's fighting so fiercely against her fellow Democrats, after doing so little to fight Bush's destructive policies when he was riding high in the polls. I think this is part of what the young voters sense too and why their hopes have soared with Obama's campaign. If we dash them now, we may be paying for this choice for far longer than the next four years.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, and Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles