President Obama returned to familiar territory Thursday in a "town hall" meeting for 250 young people, broadcast live across three cable networks – MTV, BET, and CMT – as well as streamed on the Web. The comes on the heels of a speech to students in Madison, Wis., and a meeting at George Washington University Tuesday night. These moves are an obvious strategy, given the high percentage of young people who turned out in 2008 to help propel him to the White House, but move has political strategists scratching their heads.
Too little, too late, they say.
“I don’t know why he didn’t turn to this base much earlier,” says American University’s Jane Hall, who last week hosted an on-campus event, "Is Your Vote Up For Grabs?" Despite the fact that younger voters historically don’t turn out for midterm elections, she says, “President Obama is still extremely popular among younger people.”
While much of the audience Obama was trying to reach Thursday afternoon feels disappointed by the lack of change they felt promised in the 2008 campaign, she adds that there is a perhaps surprising lack of finger-pointing at the commander-in-chief. Rather, some are even turning increasingly to the idea that a third party may be the best solution to America’s political gridlock.
Jordan Sekulow, a former grassroots organizer for President Bush in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2008, agrees that the President’s support among younger Americans is still strong, but says this is primarily because this cohort is typically most engaged in the big, presidential years – not the midterm cycles. He says this last-minute grab for younger hearts and minds is a bad sign.
“If Obama is spending his time in Madison, Wis., and a 'rock the vote' event, it is clear that Obama and his Democrats are in trouble,” he says via email, If Obama has to hit the base this hard, so close to the election, “it is a sign of desperation – trying to find a few votes."
“When only 44 percent of young voters support the President, the most popular Democrat among young voters who isn't actually on the ballot, Democrats are in trouble,” he says.
But those with their fingers on the pulse of younger voters disagree.
Give the president the benefit of the doubt on this outreach, says Brooklyn Law School professor Jonathan Askin. "It’s worthwhile to take a variety of steps to reengage America’s youth, to re-inspire the sort of political activism that [he] was able to harness during the 2008 presidential campaign," he says.
Andy Bernstein is executive director of Head Count, the non-profit behind a mobilizing effort that kicked into high gear this week with a PSA fronted by singer Jay-Z.
“There are votes to be had for either side, at this point,” he says. The most important role of engaging with the media young people consume, whether it’s popular cable channels or Twitter or Facebook, is to stoke the conversation where those younger voters are likely to engage, says Mr. Bernstein.
“The real benefit of appearing on cable, MTV and BET is getting the conversation started,” he says. That’s the goal of his PSA, he says: “start the dominoes moving. What we hope will happen is young people all over America will talk about the election in media that reaches young people. It needs to become part of the mass cultural conversation among people under 30.”
The president has a steep hill to climb, says Clyde Frazier, a professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. The mood among his students is “disconnected,” he says. This group typically disengages between the large, national elections, he says, adding that the biggest challenge the Democratic party faces is the economy. Every president in recent history has polled badly during economic downturns, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.
But give Obama some credit, he adds: "You never know what a great TV sound bite can accomplish.” The classic example, he says, was Bill Clinton’s "boxers or briefs" TV moment, which helped create important momentum for his campaign in the under-30 crowd.