Can the Youth Vote Save Obama?

Rob Sand says he's learned his lesson. In 2004, the 25-year-old native of Decorah, Iowa, backed Howard Dean for president. He was exactly the kind of kid that the feisty, youthful Dean campaign was counting on to help win the Hawkeye State's make-or-break caucus. In high school, Sand spent two years lobbying local politicians to build a public skate park. At Brown University, he led spring break service trips, developed a course on conservative political thought and even donated $50 to Dean, his first contribution to a presidential campaign. But on Jan. 19, 2004, Sand wasn't caucusing in Decorah—he was modeling menswear in Milan. "It had to be one or the other," says the typically overscheduled twentysomething. "And I chose to go to Europe." Dean, of course, finished a disappointing third; his bid never recovered. Now Sand supports Barack Obama—and says that, this time, he's sticking around to caucus. "I'm more excited about Obama than I was about Dean," he says. "Dean was polarizing. Obama brings people together."

He'd better. With Hillary Clinton up by as much as 30 percent nationally, the Obama campaign increasingly views Iowa, the only place where Obama polls within 10 points of Clinton, as a must-win proposition—and young Iowans like Sand as a key to victory. In a recent memo, campaign manager David Plouffe wrote that Obama, who often talks about generational change and typically leads Clinton among citizens under 30, will perform better than expected in Iowa solely because "pollsters heavily under-represent" young voters—a "hidden vote" composed of Obama's "core support … There's no doubt that we're going to bring new people to the caucuses," he tells NEWSWEEK.

Of course, when a campaign mentions their "hidden vote," chances are someone's desperate—and someone's getting spun. But the truth is, there are only two ways "to increase your vote total," notes Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Iowa's Drake University: "one is take a bigger share of an existing vote pool; the other is to try to expand the size of the pool" like runner-up Pat Robertson in 1988 (evangelicals) or John Kerry in 2004 (Vietnam vets). Polls show that Clinton and Edwards both trounce Obama among older Iowans—and the average caucus-goer, at 53, is definitely "older." To win, Obama must play to his strengths—and that means getting newcomers, many of them young 'uns, to turn off the Xbox and, well, "rock the vote."

It's a risky strategy. Plenty of presidential candidates—Dean, George McGovern, Bill Bradley—have appealed to the youth of America. None of them have clinched the Iowa caucuses—or gone on to win the White House. In fact, only 12,000 18-to-34-year-olds (10 percent of the total turnout) even bothered to show up in 2004. "These things are held at 6:30, 7, on a Monday night in the dead of winter, and you've got to sit there for a few hours," says Goldford. "It's a really tough sell to get young folks in."

How can Obama possibly expect to defy such dire CW? The key, aides say, is organization—and not repeating Dean's mistakes. In the first six months of 2003, Dean spent $177,402 in Iowa and hired about 25 staffers. According to the latest numbers, Obama had hired four times as many people and invested five times as much, opening an unprecedented 31 offices throughout the state. Dean's pre-caucus tally of 50,000 committed supporters never materialized; Obama calls every two weeks to make sure his backers are still on board. While Dean flooded the precincts at the last minute with thousands of out-of-state volunteers, a move that did more to alienate Iowans than attract them, Obama's volunteers, say aides, are "almost exclusively" young locals. "I think the Dean campaign made a pretty big mistake there," says media consultant Jim Margolis. "They didn't feel like Iowans, and they weren't even relating to other kids."

To connect, the Obama camp is relying in part on Barack Stars, a novel effort to target high-school seniors, who only have to be 18 by Election Day in November 2008 (not caucus night) to caucus. Launched in May, the program has active chapters in a third of Iowa's 375 high schools, where underage (and previously ignored) supporters have built floats for their homecoming parades, visited nursing homes to talk about Social Security, organized cross-state trips and even participated in a conference call last Tuesday with the candidate himself. "They're a tremendous volunteer force for us," says Hildebrand. "And the other campaigns have done nothing to try to take this territory away." The math, says Hildebrand, is simple: even though there are about 40,000 high school seniors spread across Iowa's 99 counties (unlike college students, who are concentrated on a few campuses), only a few hundred participated in 2004. Obama staffers claim that raising the number could "absolutely" alter caucus calculus.

That's a tall order—but the potential, at least, is there. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, Obama trails Clinton 25-31 percent among all Iowa Democrats, but leads 28-24 percent among likely caucus-goers. The difference, according to previously unpublished results from the poll: 20 percent of those likely voters were under 30, compared to 13 percent of the wider Democratic pool—meaning that when caucus-goers skew young, Obama is leading. "If Obama really has the ability to go out and identify young voters and motivate them wherever they live, he would, in theory, be able to make a big difference," says pollster Mark Blumenthal. "It's unlikely, but it's not impossible." It's important to note that the NEWSWEEK stats should be taken with a boulder of salt; caucuses are tricky to poll, and the small sample size makes for a big margin of error. What's more, Obama's "tremendous volunteer force" isn't quite so tremendous yet; the Barack Stars of Waukee High School, for example, have signed up only 15 classmates. Still, caucus night is three long months away—and, as Woody Allen once said, 80 percent of success is showing up. Only the Rob Sands of the world can do that.

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