THE BLOG
02/06/2008 09:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Dean Begat Obama

Seeing the crowds of young supporters at Barack Obama rallies,
commentators have been trying to locate the precise source of the
apparently sudden swell of the "youth vote." It's Facebook! It's a
greater focus on students by campaign field operatives! Or maybe the
relatively young candidate himself is the cause. But as I watched
Super Tuesday returns alongside members of Manhattan Young Democrats
and the liberal ACT NOW organization at a packed Irish pub in midtown
Manhattan, I got a different answer over and over again: we were
engaged years before Obama hit the scene, and we'll be engaged even if
he doesn't wind up with the nomination.

To be sure, in the lapel button primary, it looked like a strong
majority of those present supported the senator from Illinois. One of
the biggest cheers of the night went up as Blitzer and Co. called
Delaware for Obama. But in The Irish Rogue's other, perhaps more
significant contest -- the big-screen war -- politics beat the
stuffing out of sports. The election party had been ghettoized
upstairs, though by 9pm, one could hardly navigate the floor without
jostling others' drinks. Downstairs, the Mardi Gras hockey-watch party
looked positively depressing.

So when were all these young hardcores formed? Another answer was
consistent: many had been "Deaniacs," or supporters of Howard Dean's
2004 presidential bid. Tantalized by the taste of that campaign's
grass-roots energy yet disappointed by its failures, several of those
assembled last night had also supported Gen. Wesley Clark's campaign
in 2004, due to its tactical advantage of putting a four-star Democrat
front and center.

This increasing crossover between passion and practicality among young
voters doesn't surprise Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's tech-savvy campaign
manager in the 2004 primaries. Debunking the conventional wisdom that
the youth vote always fails to deliver, he points out that even Sen.
John Kerry received three million more votes from young people than Al
Gore did in 2000. (President George W. Bush's youth-vote tally
remained essentially stable.) Trippi still remembers his frustration
upon hearing NBC News's Brian Williams declare on election night in
2004 that the youth vote had once again failed to show up. "It did
materialize," he says. "It just couldn't make up for the whomping
Kerry took in every other age group."

Though the young "Deaniacs" who helped fuel the former Vermont
governor's presidential bid did not wind up deciding the 2004
Democratic primary or the general election, Trippi (until recently an
adviser to John Edwards) says it was the first presidential cycle
since the 60's in which Democrats gave youth participants a sense of
ownership. "I think what [youth activists] weren't used to was a
campaign saying, 'Here, this is yours, too.' They were used to
protesting totally outside any political institution -- whether it was
the World Trade Organization protests or anything else -- because no
one was giving them something to mold and help shape. And here they
had a shot at impacting something, winning and changing things. The
Dean campaign was one of those things. The [Gen. Wesley] Clark
campaign had some of that, too."

Indeed, youth activism in the 1990's -- from WTO protests to campaigns
for "fair trade" coffee and non-sweatshop clothing -- all took place
outside the auspices of the Democratic Party. The current
rapprochement represents a dramatic reversal from the intra-liberal
divisions of the 2000 campaign, when many youth activists swooned over
Ralph Nader's Green Party candidacy. While the stalwart activist has
announced he is once again exploring his options for 2008, his stock
among young liberals has plummeted. The 25,000-strong rallies with
celebrity endorsers and Eddie Vedder solo sets from the 2000 campaign
will never be repeated. (A few of the young Manhattan Democrats
hinted, in whispered tones last night, that they may have once
harbored a fascination with Nader.)

Even California Green Party activist (and former Senate candidate)
Medea Benjamin admits that the younger cohort of her state's 165,000
registered Green party members is torn between supporting the party
and jumping to Obama this year. Prepped by Dean's trailblazing use of
the web and now powered by the freshness of Obama's appeal,
establishment Democrats who resisted Dean and never understood Nader's
appeal may have lucked into a rare synergy between older and
first-time activists this time around.

Yet if the party appreciates the glow of youth endowed by the current
media halo, it ought to reflect on how, by failing to provide young
voters with a level of ownership during past campaigns, it lost them
in the first place. Young voters are not a mystic sect, waiting to
descend from their mountain redoubt at biblical intervals. Nor are
young voters monolithic. (Despite Obama's much discussed youth energy,
exit polls show Hillary Clinton won the 18-24's in Massachusetts and
California -- her two big firewalls last night.) It turns out, just
like any other demographic, young voters simply appreciate an
invitation to engagement. And perhaps a good election night party,
too.