Huffpost Technology
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tobin Van Ostern Headshot

Obama Online -- The Future of the Youth Vote

Posted: Updated:
Print

In 2006, I stumbled upon a Facebook Group called Barack Obama for President in 2008 with over 1,000 young supporters. As low as that number might seem now, in 2006 that was far more than any group for any other potential Democratic candidate. Curious about what sparked such youth interest, I decided to take a deeper look at Senator Obama in my own quest to find a candidate to support for the Democratic nomination for President. After many Google searches, reading the Audacity of Hope, and a review of his early legislative priorities as a Senator, I was sold.

By 2007, I'd worked with the founder of the Facebook group, Meredith Segal, and launched a grassroots effort to convince Senator Obama that if he ran for President, young people would support him, vote for him, and work to elect him. As of 2007 the group had spread -- relying solely on the Facebook group for recruitment -- to almost fifty chapters, and culminated with a rally at George Mason University with young people from states hundreds of miles away. They filled the space to capacity and kept coming until the fire marshal refused to allow any more to enter. A few weeks later, Senator Obama became Candidate Obama and we transferred into the official student wing of the Obama for American Campaign.

By 2008, the campaign had made numerous investments in reaching out to young people. From a youth vote department, to youth-specific staff in key battleground states, to addressing youth-specific policies, to high-tech outreach (including its own social networking website, My.BarackObama.com), the time and money was spent on youth outreach and it paid off big-time: by November, more than 1,000 SFBO chapters alone had sprouted up. For the first time in history, in the Iowa caucus, the turnout for under-30 year olds surpassed that of those age 65 and older, and these young people voted for Obama by a massive margin. This was the beginning of a trend.

I froze in Iowa to see the win, heard the famous "Yes We Can" speech when he lost the New Hampshire primary, cheered when he received the nomination in Denver, and celebrated elatedly outside the White House along with hundreds of other young supporters when he officially became President-Elect Barack Obama. The Campaign's strategic investment in young people had resulted in their overwhelming investment in Obama; young people made countless phone calls, knocked on doors, sent e-mails, texted their friends, and ultimately made the difference in key swing states, with approximately 70 percent of all voters under 30 voting Obama.

By the time 2009 arrived, the importance of President Obama seemed even more significant to those under 30. The country faced a massive economic depression, one that disproportionally affected young people who were facing double the national average for unemployment, and with the vast majority of college graduates unable to find a job. I spent the early months of the Obama presidency focusing on my own graduation and search for a job. However, I also had spent time during the transition offering my thoughts and advice to both the incoming White House staff and the newly forming Organizing for America. When WhiteHouse.gov launched the minute President-Elect Obama became President Obama, it was clear that new media was going to be a priority of the White House like never before. The White House devoted more staff and resources to it than any White House before it. At the same time, it was also clear that transitioning to a high-tech White House wasn't going to be a simple process; the first weeks were focused on dealing with 'old' media problems like an e-mail system that crashed multiple times. Nonetheless, the basics, such as multiple blogs, and broader goals were quickly established through the Open Government Directive. Over time, some of these endeavors have had fantastic results.

Whitehouse.gov/Live is one of my favorite features of the new website. Presidential addresses are frequently broadcast online, the daily Gibbs press briefing is always shown, and numerous other events are frequently carried live as well. The White House has also taken advantage of the social nature of the web today, carrying the same livestreams on Facebook Live. This allows viewers to chat with other people watching, share their questions and thoughts, post status updates, and even ask questions of speakers including President Obama himself. Another clear success is the use of Google Moderator and online voting. This was used in one instance to submit questions to be answered by different high-ranking administration officials. The questions could be submitted by anyone and people voted them up or down and the most popular ones were asked.

In another unprecedented move, the White House invited the public to submit suggestions online for decreasing government waste with the first annual SAVE award. They received an astonishing 38,000 submissions, and ultimately, voting was again employed with the winning idea to halt the disposal of useful medicine at VA Hospitals was guaranteed enactment. Hundreds of other ideas are likely to be enacted as well.

Recovery.gov was launched as part of the broader approach to achieve greater transparency and was a well-intended and well-designed site. It featured numerous ways of viewing data and getting a sense of what the government was spent on. Ultimately it had flaws in the form of inaccurately reported data but in almost all instances the information was accurate and universally accessible in a matter of seconds. Furthermore the White House released staff salary figures in an easily searchable spreadsheet and also has begun periodic visitor log releases. These are all great steps to further transparency.

Inevitably, there is still a good amount of room for technological improvement in the administration. In technology, 18 months is a lifetime (according to Moore's Law) and the 12 months of President Obama's first year reflects that. The site has dramatically expanded and taken advantage of new technologies. The White House even just released an iPhone App and promises a mobile version of the website will be coming shortly. Thus, it is easy to say that I have visions for the future of the site, and hope that its improvements will continue over the next few years (and expect they will). The Obama presidency has ushered in additional new media staff in the various government agencies as well. Many of them have launched similarly adept websites and created Facebook and social media websites. One area where I feel there is tremendous potential is the realm of the FEC and political contribution disclosures. Most of the data is posted in a PDF format that makes it extremely difficult for organizations such as OpenSecrets.org (of The Center for Responsive Politics) to sift through. While a tremendous task, my hope is that in the next few years we'll see a huge increase in the availability of the data, thus allowing people to see how big companies attempt to use money to buy influence in Congress.

Since I graduated last spring, I decided to continue my goal of helping young people be politically active. After facing different options upon graduation, I ultimately decided to become the Network Associate for the youth arm of the Center for American Progress, Campus Progress. There I continue to aid young people as they seek to become active around the issues that interest them. As a result of that job, I have frequent interaction with the White House. The White House, to its credit, frequently organizes conference calls and provides information to myself and other youth organizers and youth organizations around the country. The level of interest of young voters remains high, and a variety of youth organizations, including my own, are helping them organize around the issues that interest them. There is no mistake that the interests of young voters remain a priority to the Obama White House. Health care reform, the top priority of the White House, is yet another issue that disproportionately affects young people and upon its passage would dramatically help young people in particular.

On the political side, OFA benefits from having College Democrats of America in place as part of it being under the DNC wing, but ultimately has not established a youth-specific program or youth-specific staff to take advantage of those interested for the first time. This has resulted in frustration among former Obama youth leaders around the country.

Ultimately, I believe that the policy priorities of the Obama administration will ensure that young supporters remain active in any way they can -- as is represented in the significant approval rating President Obama still garners amongst my peers. A year after his inauguration, I could not be prouder of what President Obama has already fought for, achieved, and will continue to fight for in the years to come. Young people everywhere understand that he cannot do it alone and if there is an issue we are passionate about, we will be active. We're impatient for change, and we will continue our advocacy no matter how many pundits continue to write us off.

As an expanding percentage of the voting electorate, Millennials literally represent the future of the American political landscape and any campaign or candidate that ignores or belittles us will ultimately see it result in their downfall. The difficulties of health care reform, and the electoral impact of a somewhat subdued base in Massachusetts, are calls to renew our activism and strengthen it. With a knowledgeable president in office that will fight for the values of all Americans, I look forward to the years of political activism that lie ahead. In the campaigns to come, technological improvements and innovations will help us continue on the arc towards transparency and greater citizen involvement in governing. Thus I begin this new decade excited for my own role in continuing to change Washington for the better and hopeful that I'll have an equally impassioned White House helping to forge the path.

The opinions represented in this column are the writer's own and not those of Campus Progress.

From Our Partners