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Are Young Voters Taking Over The Party?

Sen. Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee largely because of unprecedented turnout by young voters in key primary states. (More data below.) Last week, walking around the speeches, panels and parties at the Democratic National Convention, it was clear that young voters are ascendant. Young people made up 16 percent of the delegates, a 50 percent increase since 2000, and they set the tone in a packed Mile High Stadium on the Big Night. The New York Times gives a flavor of how young people dominated the vibe:

In a twist on the normal convention finale, the prominent figures — donors, elected officials and media celebrities like Dan Rather — looked somewhat like the interlopers. Younger people dressed in jeans and shorts — many not of voting age — seemed decidedly more at home, as if they were attending an open-air concert and were fully versed in the festival ritual. The wave broke out in Section 338 just after Mr. Gore’s speech ended and spread quickly around the stadium.

Justin Rockefeller, a youth voting advocate who has attend several conventions with his father, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, told me that this year’s convention was the youngest he’s ever seen. “From my memory it definitely looks younger — not so much on delegate floor, but more so in the hallways and especially outside,” he observed.

But all is not well with the youth vote.

Michael Connery, an analyst of youth engagement and the author of “Youth to Power: How Today’s Young Voters Are Building Tomorrow’s Progressive Majority,” worries that young voters were “seen but not heard” at the DNC:

Turnout among young voters in the Democratic primary was double the level recorded in 2004, and young voters broke heavily in favor of Sen. Obama. In the Iowa caucuses, young voters performed on par with the “reliable” senior vote, and were widely credited with providing Sen. Obama’s margin of victory… Despite this unprecedented youth involvement at the convention, young people were more likely to be seen than heard by the delegates and party officials in Denver….

Most surprisingly, the one place young voters were completely absent at the Democratic National Convention was at the podium. During my four nights at the convention I did not see one young voter or youth organizer – from CDA, YDA, SFBO or otherwise – address the convention. Thursday at Invesco Field was no better. Not one young person took the stage that night.

These are important critiques. It’s odd that Obama’s team did not tout more youth stories and voices during prime time, since he needs to keep his young base energized for turnout.

There was, however, at least one major youth speaker on Thursday night at the stadium. Ray Rivera, 29, a Colorado state director for the Obama campaign, addressed the 80,000 person crowd — twice. He was promoting, naturally, a text message organizing program, which recruited 30,000 new numbers that night alone. There was a big map and everything. I followed up with Connery, but he was not impressed. He emailed from the Republican National Convention:

I don’t count Ray Rivera’s time on the stage. He may be young, but his purpose on stage was not to represent youth at the convention, it was to list build for the campaign. He was not there as an advocate for young people on the many pressing issues we face, and even if he were, one slot in four nights would still be skimpy representation considering what young people have done for Democratic candidates since 2006.

So there. It doesn’t count and even if it did it’s not enough. But that vision is a bit too cramped.

It is good that Obama entrusted his operation in a key state like Colorado to a young operative; just as it was good for Obama to put so much faith in young web organizers who upended U.S. politics with their online strategy, social networking and web fund-raising. Joe Rospars, Sam Graham-Felsen and Chris Hughes, for example, are all 27 or younger.

In many ways, empowering young people without putting them in youth constituency silos is better than just checking the youth box with some official speaker. Rivera had a huge — probably nerve-racking — role on the Big Night to actually do something in his official role, albeit related to the youth vote, rather than just giving a quick talk about how Barack inspires students.

There could have been more young speakers on stage all week — and it will be interesting to see the contrast for Republicans in St. Paul — but the text message addresses were a good start

  • For a full video breakdown of Obama’s youth edge, here’s a clip of a recent panel I attended on the Youth Vote in 2008.*

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