The Youth Vote: How It Plays in Peoria

There's something about Barack Obama—his youth, his transcendence of race, his coolness—that has awakened the sleeping giant of the youth vote. Apathy is no more. Maggie Koehler attends classes and works as an administrative assistant at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and on Saturdays, instead of sleeping in, she gets in her car, festooned with political stickers, and drives three hours to Iowa to canvas for Obama. On her refrigerator, there's a letter from an Iowa woman she coaxed into voting early who's now an Obama volunteer—evidence that Maggie is having an impact.

Koehler is a regional coordinator for the Obama campaign, and she was in Springfield on the frigid day in February 2007 when he announced for president. "My glove hand was in [a photo in] The New York Times," she exults. Her father is a state senator in the Illinois legislature, and political activism is in her blood. She was an Obama delegate at the Denver convention, and she's been driving to Iowa every weekend since. She's thrilled that gas prices are down, and notes that gas is 30 cents a gallon cheaper in Iowa than it is in Peoria.

She's a volunteer, so she covers her own expenses, which includes $15 for doughnuts for the kids she recruits to go door to door. At age 29, she's at the outer limits of the under-30 millennial generation that Obama is counting on to turn out in big numbers for him. She's old enough to have gotten involved in the last two elections, but she didn't. Asked why not, she seems puzzled. "I could have been," she says. "I wasn't." All she knows is that after several years of trying different things—traveling around the country as a union organizer, enrolling for a time in a seminary—she has found her calling, at least for now, in getting out the vote for Obama and rousing her fellow students to help change the face of the electorate. A Democratic pollster says he doesn't lie awake nights worrying about the so-called Bradley effect (a hidden race bias that appears on Election Day) but rather that the much anticipated "Youth Quake" won't materialize on the scale needed to insure Obama's victory.

On the other hand, what if Obama wins with a bigger margin than any of the polls suggest going into the election? Polls rely on likely voters—what if all the unlikely voters, the students with cell phones who elude the pollsters, show up on Election Day? What would we call that? Would it be a reverse Bradley effect—or would we call it the Tiger Woods effect, after another American icon recognized for traversing racial and ethnic lines?

Bradley University is historically a conservative campus, but it doesn't seem so right now. At a breakfast Koehler organized in the alumni lounge the morning after the last presidential debate, there was only one McCain "leaner" among the 15 students. Everybody else declared unequivocally for Obama. One young woman, an international-studies major, said her father, a Republican, became so enamored with Obama that early in the primaries, when she backed John Edwards, he flew her to New Hampshire to attend an Obama rally. Now she's as rabid a supporter as her dad. Another student said she was raised in a household that didn't care about politics, and for a long time didn't know whether she leaned Republican or Democratic. "It was never a topic of conversation," she said. Then she went with her friends to an Obama rally when he was running for the state Senate, and she was captivated.

A USA Today columnist lamented in an op-ed early this week that campus politics are boring because everybody is for Obama. To the contrary, I find it exciting that for the first time in at least a generation young people have found a political figure they can relate to and believe in after all the cynicism they've grown up with. Sarah Palin had great fun mocking Obama as a community organizer, but he's put those skills to good use in this campaign. Kuehler points out that since Illinois, Obama's home state, is safely Democratic, students fan out each weekend to the nearest bordering states—to Missouri, to Wisconsin, to Indiana, to Iowa.

"How will it play in Peoria?" is a phrase that goes back to the days of vaudeville. In the heart of the Midwest, halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, Peoria had a reputation for having the toughest audiences. For politicians, the working-class community became the symbol of average America. If they could spell out a policy or a program so it plays in Peoria, it would play anywhere. Peoria's politics are Heartland America, which in recent decades meant Republican. A Bradley graduate, 26-year-old Aaron Schock, is running as a Republican and is favored to win the seat of retiring GOP Rep. Ray LaHood. But with Democrats expected to make big gains in Congress, any freshman Republican Peoria sends to Congress will be far down the list in status and seniority. "He'll be lucky to get a broom closet for an office," says Koehler.