Barack Obama did his homework on how to win young voters, and now he's got the grades to prove it. Voters under 30 heavily favored him, and came to the polls in record numbers. A new generation looks ready to engage in American democracy – and not just on Election Day.
The 2008 campaign has awakened far more than the next cadre of voters, as necessary as that is to a healthy body politic. Mr. Obama also involved them in a two-way conversation, made possible on a large scale by the Internet. Many of these supporters will expect that engagement to continue into the governing stage.
To what extent today's political Facebook friends will exert influence – and to what extent the new president will be able to mobilize it – remains an open question. But one has the sense that the country is on the verge of a new way of governing from the Oval Office, one that's more participatory than ever.
Encouragingly, this generation actually wants to interact with government, politics, and public service. That's a reversal of the "bowling alone" years of 1990s civic apathy among youth. A fall pre-election survey by Harvard's Institute of Politics shows that almost 60 percent of voters ages 18 to 24 are personally interested in doing some kind of public service.
Nearly half said that could include working for federal, state, or local government. A third of the total said they would consider working for a campaign, and a fifth said they would consider public office.
With so many baby-boomer government workers retiring soon, this interest couldn't be more timely (though the administration will have to vastly improve government hiring flexibility and pay if it doesn't want to turn off enthusiasm).
The year that lowered the voting age to 18 – 1972 – still holds the record for youth turnout (55 percent vs. this year's estimated 52 percent). But the last time a candidate drew nearly this many young voters (about 23 million) was 1984. They heavily favored Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale and built the ranks of a new generation of conservative voters.
This group is different. More of them come from single-parent homes. They are more ethnically diverse, secular, technologically adept, and Democratic. They grew up on community service at school.
In 2004, they reversed a long decline in youth voter turnout, and, when their candidate lost, many pushed for causes such as Darfur and climate change.
The president-elect gives every indication he will continue to solicit input from young voters – though not just from youth. His transition website, www.change.gov, asks visitors to "share ideas." As president, he plans Internet "fireside chats" with the public and online town halls with the cabinet. From the millions of e-mail addresses that his campaign collected, one can imagine a mass mobilization when important votes come up in Congress.
But there's no guarantee young people will stay involved. Presidents have generally not succeeded in going over the heads of Congress to rally the public. And the public may not go along. The biggest online group on his "mybarackobama.com" site was once people upset over the candidate's switch to favor warrantless wiretapping.
Obama will have to work hard to keep the attention and activism of youth. But the payoff for a vibrant democracy could be huge.