If you were a college student, what would you be doing at 6:30 a.m. on a cold Saturday morning after a night of responsible rowdiness? Exactly. Driving to New Hampshire to spend the day going door-to-door for Barack Obama in 15-degree weather.
About 15 students and I trekked from New Haven, Conn. up to Keene, N.H. to participate in the Obama campaign's "Weekend for Change," the latest evidence of Obama's "unrivaled grassroots organizational effort."
The moment we stepped out of our cars in Keene we were hit by air that was colder than Ann Coulter. Some of us from more habitable regions of the country had second thoughts about risking frostbite for Barack. But those silly doubts disappeared once we entered the campaign headquarters where we were greeted by a packed room of volunteers who had come from as far as Pennsylvania to talk one-on-one with local residents about why Barack is the candidate who will make a real difference in Washington. After some inspiring words from a man volunteering for his tenth presidential campaign -- "This is the most exciting of 'em all," he insisted -- we headed out to begin canvassing in the cold, wrapped in the warmth of hope for a new brand of American politics. (Whew. Now that I've written the most disgustingly cheesy sentence I could come up with, I'm ready to bring something worth reading to the table.)
My friend, Sam, and I were pumped to be assigned a neighborhood not far from Keene State's campus since Barack's message has so much appeal with young voters. The first student we met was Maria Muskus, a 30-year-old working multiple jobs to just barely meet the cost of tuition. When asked if she had any thoughts about the upcoming election, Maria responded, "Honestly I haven't had time to do much thinking about it." Maria was not an "apathetic youth"; she wanted to learn more about the candidates. "But every day I go from class to work and now I've been working the third shift..." Maria hadn't had a chance to see much daylight let alone a debate.
Maria is the archetypal twenty-first century American college student. Graduating from college four years after high school, once the traditional route, has become a luxury only wealthy students can afford. Even after spending more time in college working to make bill payments than to make good grades, students like Maria graduate with mounds of debt. Maria loves art history and has considered teaching, but with loans to repay, a career in education -- which would require even more tuition payments and loans -- seems unlikely.
Maria and I talked about Obama's plans to make higher education more accessible, including moving from our current federally-subsidized bank loan model to a direct loan model and strengthening the nation's community colleges. (Other candidates, at least other Democrats, also have some great plans.)
It's been exciting to see the campaigns focus on young voters more than they have in previous election cycles. In addition to hiring youth outreach directors and incorporating Facebook into their campaign strategies, the major Democratic, candidates have all formally launched groups to motivate and organize young voters. It's no secret that students are far more smitten with Obama than with any other candidate. But it's also no secret that "student support" in elections tends to be concentrated mostly on the campuses of selective institutions whose student bodies are not representative of much of the nation's student population let alone the nation's young voters (indeed, only 21 percent of 18-29 year olds are currently attending a college or university). That's why it's been so exciting to see Students for Obama chapters up and running not only at Yale (where we have close to 500 members, about six times as many as the local Hillary group), but also at schools from Kennesaw State in Georgia to Keene State in New Hampshire. Still, the true face of the youth vote is not a student like me who writes a blog from his dorm rooms; it's not even one of the members of Keene State's Students for Obama chapter. The true face of the youth vote is Maria Muskus.
I'm supporting Barack Obama because I believe he's the candidate that can reach people who feel like they've been shut out by the American political system: people like Maria who feel shut out because they're trapped in an endless cycle of debt; people like Mrs. Harkle, a middle-aged mother I met in Keene who feels shut out because her concerns about climate change are ignored in our current political climate; and the millions of Americans who are tired of paying for a misguided and destructive war with billions of dollars and the blood of American soldiers.
This was the primary concern of most of the residents I met in Keene. One woman who wore a yellow handkerchief around her neck for her husband who is serving in Baghdad could hardly muster the patience to talk to us. After watching politicians break up her family with a war four years ago and then break their promise to end that war this year, she was tired of politics as usual. Another woman we met, who was clearly old enough to have seen her fair share of presidential elections, was ready to shut the door in our face when she saw we were from a political campaign. But when we talked about Obama's vision, foresight and judgment in dealing with Iraq, she invited us in from the cold. For 10 minutes we chatted in her living room about why it was so important that we restore America's place in the world as a country that engenders hope, not fear.
One of the many other volunteers who came to Keene this weekend told us that after disagreeing with his wife, a Republican, every election cycle about whom to vote for, they had finally reached a consensus choice. "If Obama can bring me and my wife together," he said, "imagine what he can do for the country."