Campaign is music to young voters’ ears
GRAMMY award winning artist Dave Matthews, joined by Tim Reynolds, played a special concert at Assembly Hall on behalf of the Democratic Presidential campaign of Barack Obama on Sunday in Bloomington.
(Matt Dial / INDIANAPOLIS STAR)
With rock concerts and text messages,
Obama connecting with younger crowd
By BILL RUTHHART
7 April 2008
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Dave Matthews strolled onto the stage at Assembly Hall on Sunday night and, with guitar in hand, proclaimed his support for Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid to more than 13,000 screaming fans.
But the popular singer’s two-hour set of acoustic tunes with collaborator Tim Reynolds was more than just the latest celebrity endorsement that Obama or his opponent Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has received.
Matthews’ performance illustrated the differences in the tactics the two presidential campaigns have used to attract young voters who have turned out in record numbers this year.
Obama’s recipe of community organizing, celebrity appearances and an unprecedented use of online technology, political experts say, has revolutionized how young voters connect to a campaign.
Whether they are receiving policy updates on their phones, attending happy hour at an Indianapolis tavern with a Hollywood actor or singing along to Matthews’ live rendition of “Satellite,” young Indiana voters have been engaged by Obama’s campaign in ways no other presidential candidate has used.
Obama’s approach draws a strong contrast to Clinton’s more traditional campaign, said Michael Cornfield, a political science professor at George Washington University.
“Obama has used the celebrity appeal combined with the grass-roots organizing, and both are intertwined with the Internet,” Cornfield said. “This is a new approach at a level of success we’ve never seen before.”
Differences in the two approaches were evident here Wednesday.
Former President Bill Clinton was on campus to campaign for his wife, but shortly before he took the stage, Obama’s campaign announced it would give away free tickets to the Matthews concert.
While the former president spoke about his wife’s plans for the economy, health care and Iraq to about 6,000 people, the Obama campaign office in Bloomington gave away 3,000 Matthews tickets to students who waited in a line half a mile long. More tickets were given away later.
On Sunday, the smell of beer and cigarette smoke hung in the air outside Assembly Hall as thousands of students sat in the sun waiting to get in. Jimmy Brighton was one of the first in line.
“I didn’t really know who I was going to vote for before, but now I think I’m voting for Barack because of this,” Brighton said, looking around to the thousands of people tailgating in the sunshine. “Who gets Dave Matthews to come play at a school just like that? It’s pretty cool.”
Not everyone was sold.
“A Dave concert is pretty sweet, and I’m going, but Barack Obama’s not getting my vote,” said Trevor Zike, 20, Martinsville. “I’ve been with Hillary all the way, because she brings change everywhere she goes, and that’s what we need.”
AnnElyse Gibbons, IU’s president of Students for Hillary Clinton, said her group is riding the momentum created by campus visits from Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea.
“I think it shows a lot about the Clintons’ interest in college students that we had Bill and Chelsea come speak to us directly,” Gibbons said. “I think there’s a difference between having a concert and having someone really speak to you about the issues firsthand.”
In addition to Bill Clinton’s visit to IU, Chelsea Clinton has spoken at six college campuses and returned to the state Sunday to visit five more this week.
Obama has made two Indiana appearances and has dispatched actors Jeremy Piven and Kal Penn to speak to young voters. Campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis said Obama will make more personal appearances starting with a three-day bus tour Wednesday, but he said Sunday’s Matthews concert shows the campaign’s commitment to young voters.
Reaching young voters
In primaries and caucuses held to date, Obama has received a strong majority of support from young voters, according to statistics from The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
The University of Maryland-based think tank has tracked turnout and support of youth voters, ages 18 to 29, in 24 of the contests. Obama won the support of young voters in 21 of those states; Clinton won in California, Massachusetts and Arkansas, states she won overall.
“Obama has been much more effective in reaching younger voters,” said Bruce Gronbeck, who runs the Center for Media Studies and Political Culture at the University of Iowa. “His campaign got a good jump on the young voters and has held on.”
The Obama campaign’s technology advantage is a big reason why, Gronbeck said.
Both campaigns use e-mail mailing lists to reach voters, and both have active Web sites and a presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
But Obama reaches young voters in ways the Clinton campaign doesn’t. He enlisted Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to help create MyBarackObama.com, which allows visitors to create profiles and Obama pages.
Obama’s campaign also gives voters the opportunity to sign up for text message updates on his policy announcements, which are delivered straight to their phones. Voters can even download ringtones for their phones, many of which feature sound bites from Obama’s speeches laid over hip-hop beats.
On Facebook, he has nearly 750,000 supporters to Clinton’s 143,000. On MySpace, Obama has more than 341,000 “friends” compared with Clinton’s 195,000.
The Clinton campaign emphasizes the personal visits.
“We don’t think we can earn a student’s vote by putting up a Web site,” said Robby Mook, Indiana field director for the Clinton campaign.
Campaign or popularity contest?
But could utilizing celebrities and social networking sites reduce a presidential race to a popularity contest among young voters?
Matthews sees it as an improvement, not a threat, he said in an interview before Sunday’s concert. Now, he says, young voters have ways to learn about candidates other than sound bites through mainstream media.
“I think the people who have held the cards in how elections go – news channels, news corporations, big newspapers – don’t like the idea that the ball could fall out of their hands and fall into the hands of the people, which is what it should be,” Matthews said, seated in the Hoosiers’ locker room.
“Anybody can come out and say whatever they want – that is the central idea in this country, and it is a popularity contest.”
Even though Obama has received greater support among young voters in other states, Gibbons said, student supporters for Clinton aren’t giving up on their candidate.
“Do I feel like it’s an uphill battle? Sometimes, because I feel like there’s people who dismiss us,” Gibbons said. “But there’s other times when I get so many e-mails and phone calls from Hillary supporters that I feel like it’s not uneven at all.”
But Sunday night in Assembly Hall, it was all about Obama.
With a large campaign banner that read “Change We Can Believe In” at his back, Matthews sat under the spotlight.
“And if you don’t know who to vote for, I’ll tell you,” Matthews said with a smile to the roar of the crowd.
“Vote for Obama!”