By Ben Goddard - 05/14/08 05:22 PM EDT
My generation was the one that was supposed to change politics. We would end the war, sweep the old guard from power and bring peace to the world. Instead, we got Richard Nixon, disco and a declining youth vote throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Well, the youth-quake may finally be happening this year. Younger voters, those aged 18 to 29, have increased their participation in the Democratic primaries by 88 percent. That is an astonishing number coming on the heels of increases of youthful voters in 2004 and 2006. Young Republicans are also turning out in higher numbers, but the increase is only a fraction of that which is apparent among Democrats.
What is driving this heightened interest has not changed all that much in 40 years — younger voters believe the nation is seriously off-track and they want to do something about it. What has changed is the tools to make a difference. Rather than pile into a rusty Volkswagen to drive to an organizing meeting, today’s youth literally have power at their fingertips. A recent study by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the Democracy Corps reported some fascinating data on “the first generation that truly experiences electoral politics online.”
Whether they are watching a debate on streaming video, visiting a candidate’s website or checking out the latest YouTube postings, they rely on the Web as their primary source of information about politics. They have not abandoned the mainstream media entirely; nearly as many watch local and television news. But it is clear that these young voters rely on and trust the information they get online more than from any other source.
The reason is likely that the Web is 21st-century word of mouth, the most consistently powerful form of political communication throughout history. The most frequent action these younger voters take is to talk with friends about the election, the candidates and issues. Those conversations are no longer limited by time and space. The dialogue goes on 24/7 and a lot of it happens on social networking sites — cyber-friend to cyber-friend.
These young voters don’t see themselves as just a digital address on a massive server-list. They are members of small communities, many of which are networked, greatly expanding their reach and power. Barack Obama’s campaign has generally been acknowledged as the one to understand this phenomenon in 2008. There are some 8,000 affinity groups affiliated with the Obama campaign. Over 750,000 activists have signed on to his movement, and close to 1.3 million people have donated to the campaign. The activists send e-mails, create nationwide phone trees and travel to primary and caucus states to organize. The small online communities are linked into a massive network that will mobilize when needed to win an election.
When you consider the power of such an Internet-driven force it raises interesting possibilities for an Obama presidency. Writing in The Atlantic this month, Marc Ambinder recalls how other presidents have mastered new technology to change campaigns and change the nation. Andrew Jackson used the printing press and a new national postal service to win the White House, spread his legend and advocate for his policies. Abraham Lincoln used the growing reach of newspapers to create a sense of a union worthy of defending. FDR mesmerized and mobilized a nation with his fireside radio chats. John F. Kennedy gathered us around our television sets to share his vision — and, ultimately, a nation’s sorrow.
Could a President Obama use his mastery of the Internet to create the first digital presidency? Imagine how a president might use the Internet to build support for his proposals. A presidential blog, online chats about issues, outreach to supporters and seeding those thousands of small communities that make up the Internet universe are just some of the tools that a digital-age president could use. The candidate has already suggested he might post bills passed by Congress online before deciding to sign or veto them and to seek Internet input on budget expenditures.
In this campaign the Internet has primarily been used by younger voters. But in my day job, which is to influence public policy for a range of clients, we’re finding that aging boomers are the fastest-growing segment of Internet users. Obama, with his Internet savvy and cadre of Web-heads, could take the tools that have driven his campaign to the White House and create a whole new way of going directly to the American people to change the direction of the country.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.