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Obama hopes for strong youth vote

From NBC/National Journal's Aswini Anburajan
HANOVER, N.H. -- In a speech to students at Dartmouth University Wednesday, Obama's New Hampshire's State Director told students that a win in the Granite State could be decided by the youth vote. "If we can get two to three thousand extra votes from you guys that could be four to five, six, seven percent of the vote," Matt Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez pushed students to register and vote in New Hampshire and to encourage their friends and dorm mates to do the same. His speech reflected a campaign strategy to increase turnout among young voters in New Hampshire. Obama's campaign has five dedicated college organizers to get out the vote on campuses across the state. Their efforts appear to be paying off at least at Dartmouth, where Obama signs and t-shirts are ubiquitous across the picturesque New England campus.

 
But the Obama campaign's emphasis on campaigning among college students and young voters has raised eyebrows, especially in Iowa where the youth vote is not seen as a constituency that can be relied upon to turnout. "If it's a battle between Hillary and Barack, it doesn't take a lot to win -- 30,000 votes," Rodriguez said. "Think about what a few thousand young people would mean.
 
Both Rodriguez and Jim Demers, a Democratic strategist working with the Obama campaign, stressed the potential idea of students being part of a historical sea change in politics should they help elect Obama.

"Young people connect with Barack Obama better than any other candidate," Demers said. "If this guy wins, it would be the first time since the Vietnam War that the youth vote made a difference," Demers said.

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean also acknowledged the potential impact of the youth vote.

"The 18-to-29-year-old vote increased by 20 percent in the 2004 election," Dean said and added that in the 2006 election participation by this bloc had increased by 24%. But, according the Vanishing Voter Project at the Kennedy School of Government, voting by eligible Americans under 30 years of age only increased by 9% in 2004, and in the swing states Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, their participation exceeded 60%. In Iowa in 2004, there was a four-fold increase in caucus participation by 18-to-29-year olds, but in New Hampshire, by contrast, turnout levels remained the same, according to the project.
 
Demers, when speaking to the students about electability, addressed the potential hurdle Obama faces as the first African-American president. He compared the notion that no one would vote for a black candidate today to the idea that no one would vote for John F. Kennedy because of his religion.  

"Everyone said a Catholic couldn't win the presidency," Demers said, "and Barack Obama as an African-American candidate there are those that say he can't win. But the Americans stepped up and did it."

When asked by Dartmouth student Anna Bufa, 20, about whether Obama could win a general election, Demers echoed the theme that the Obama campaign has tried to stress all week -- greater national electability. "With Hillary Clinton, the biggest concern I have is national polls saying 43 percent of Americans don't want to vote for her," Demers said. "My fear is that we have a map that looks like the last two elections, and it will become about a race for a win in one state. That's how we got George W. Bush."

Appearing to channel the recent campaign endorsement given by former Democratic Party Chair Gordon Fischer in Iowa, Demers also said that Obama would provide coattails for other Democrats on the ballot, and referenced the potential race between Jean Shaheen and John Sununu for Sununu's New Hampshire senate race in 2008.

If the Obama campaign is counting on students to register and vote in New Hampshire, the eventual dates of the primary calendar could have a tremendous impact on youth turnout.  Should the New Hampshire primary be held before students return to school from their winter break, students that had registered to vote in New Hampshire would have to vote by absentee ballot. Students from New Hampshire who had registered to vote on their college campuses rather than their hometowns could also be at a disadvantage. 

Also, a recent change in New Hampshire's voting laws allows same day registration, which could help turn out the youth vote.  But if the primaries take place before the students return to campus, there may be few youth to actually turnout.