Young People Drawn to Aid in 2008 Race

By Alyson Klein — April 25, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: This article misstated the name of the Calabasas, Calif., nonprofit group that sponsors the civics course “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution.” It is the Center for Civic Education.

The scene in Brian Griffin’s bedroom looks like a cross between a charity telethon and an intense cramming session the night before a final exam.

Mr. Griffin and about 10 of his classmates—fellow members of the Plainfield High School chapter of Students for Barack Obama—are sprawled around the room, cellphones in hand, studying voter databases on their laptops. They’re trying to locate Indiana supporters of the U.S. senator from Illinois and urge them to turn out for the upcoming primary—or better yet, they hope, to volunteer for the campaign.

Most of the students, who are old enough to vote in the Hoosier State’s hotly contested Democratic presidential face-off May 6, say they were leaning to Sen. Obama even before he held a town-hall meeting last month in the gym of their high school in this largely affluent, politically conservative suburb of Indianapolis.

But after hearing the candidate speak, they decided they had to work for him.

“What he says calls out to our generation more than any other,” said Kaci Gardner, 18, a senior at Plainfield High, in the 4,200-student Plainfield school district.

“He and Hillary have a lot of the same ideas, but the way he presents himself is very different,” Ms. Gardner said of Sen. Obama and his opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Luke Gilbert, front, and Brian Griffin, both 18, of Plainfield High work their computers and phones for the Obama campaign. School courses have helped spur such interest.

No matter which candidate young people are working for and why, becoming active in campaigns and other civic activities as early as high school may translate into greater political involvement on their part later in life, said John Roos, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, who backs Sen. Obama. He said volunteering helps students learn how their actions can affect the political process.

Sen. Clinton also has strong backers among Indiana students. But Sen. Obama has captured the attention of young voters more than any candidate in decades, said Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, which publishes nonpartisan analyses of politics and elections. The Illinois senator’s approach to grassroots organization has a strong online component, which has helped leverage the efforts of young voters, Mr. Gonzales said.

“He’s a unique sort of candidate. He doesn’t look like the average politician. He doesn’t talk like the average politician,” Mr. Gonzales said. “He’s started to have this MTV quality to him. I think it all starts to build on itself, and young people want to be part of the next cool thing, and I think Barack Obama and supporting him is the cool thing to do.”

At the beginning of the 2008 presidential cycle, most pundits thought the Democrats would have settled on a presumptive nominee long before the Indiana primary. But now, with Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton still fighting for convention delegates and bragging rights in the popular vote, this state and North Carolina, which votes the same day, are just the latest battlegrounds.

On April 24, the political Web site Realclearpolitics.com, which averaged five polls conducted in Indiana during late March and April, showed Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama essentially deadlocked in the state.

Inspired by Courses

Mr. Griffin and his classmates are hoping to help tip the race to Sen. Obama. Four Plainfield High students, including Mr. Griffin, have joined the Obama campaign as paid interns; they each receive a small stipend in exchange for committing to work for the campaign at least 15 hours a week through the primary. And they’ve helped organize a chapter of Students for Barack Obama at their 1,290 student school, which helps them network with other supporters in the Plainfield area, and with the state and national campaigns.

“I think the commitment among high school students is surprisingly real,” said Alison Griffin, the youth-vote director for Sen. Obama’s Indiana campaign, who has worked directly with the Plainfield students.

“Obviously, when you have volunteers for anything, there’s going to be a flake rate, but I’ve been incredibly impressed with the level of dedication of high school kids,” some of whom can’t yet vote, said Ms. Griffin, who is no relation to Brian Griffin.

There are about 35 chapters of Students for Barack Obama, both at the high school and college levels, in Indiana, Ms. Griffin estimated. There are other such organizations in states nationwide.

The campaign has at least 2,000 high school volunteers in Indiana, Ms. Griffin said. Some have shown up to canvass neighborhoods or make calls once or twice; others have routinely put in late nights at campaign offices.

Sen. Clinton also relies on high school students as volunteers and interns in her campaign. There are chapters of Hoosiers for Hillary, the national campaign’s Indiana arm, at many colleges in the state, said Ben Kobren, a spokesman for Sen. Clinton’s Indiana campaign, but he couldn’t say whether there are high school-based chapters.

Still, he echoed Ms. Griffin’s sentiments, saying the high school volunteers have been invaluable in outreach.

“We couldn’t do our jobs without their help,” he said.

Brian Griffin and several other Plainfield High students say their interest in politics was piqued when they took part in an Advanced Placement government class and in a course called We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, which is sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, a Calabasas, Calif., nonprofit group.

The curriculum provides an in-depth look at the U.S. Constitution and encourages critical thinking on current events, said Chris Cavanaugh, a Plainfield social studies teacher who leads the We the People and AP government classes.

In Indiana, students as young as 17 are allowed to vote in primaries, provided that they will be 18 by the general election in November.

The Plainfield students are “coming of age politically at a historic time,” Mr. Cavanaugh said, in part because this is the first time a woman and an African-American are vying for the nomination of a major party, in one of the closest nomination contests in recent history.

The students working for Sen. Obama have become familiar with the nitty-gritty of grassroots campaigning. “I know these guys have learned it’s not all the glamour they thought it would be,” Mr. Cavanaugh said. “There’s a lot of menial work.”

The Plainfield High students have canvassed neighborhoods, going door to door with Sen. Obama’s campaign literature. They’ve made phone calls and lent a hand at events around the state.

On the evening of April 21, they made calls using numbers from several different databases, including a general list of Indiana and national voters. Following a rough script available on the Obama Web site, the students asked voters whom they were supporting in the primary campaign, and found out whether they had questions about Sen. Obama and his policy positions.

Another database lists students of high school age in the state who have had some contact with the campaign and expressed interest in volunteering.

Ben Ulrich, one of the students interning with the campaign, directed his peers on how to handle those calls. “Make it sound fun— these are high schoolers,” he said. “Tell them they can have a pizza party or something” while making calls for Sen. Obama.

Making campaign calls, or “phone-banking,” can have its low moments. “I’ve been hung up on and told, ‘Please don’t call here again,’ ” Ms. Gardner said. Another time, Mr. Griffin called a name listed in the database, only to be asked why the Obama campaign wanted to talk to the family dog.

Influencing Parents

Other young Hoosiers, meanwhile, are emphatic in their support for Sen. Clinton.

Abigail Anders, a senior at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Ind., and an intern with the Clinton campaign, was inspired to work for the New York senator when she saw her speak at a nearby high school in late March.

Ms. Anders, who is planning a career in environmental policy, said she’s especially excited about Sen. Clinton’s initiative to help spur the economy by investing in alternative energy.

“I felt like she was speaking just to me, to the issues that I care about,” Ms. Anders said. Volunteering for the campaign sounded intimidating at first, she said. But once she began, she said, she concluded that “there’s a place for everyone [in Sen. Clinton’s campaign]. … People are really inspired when they leave here.”

On April 23, the day after Sen. Clinton defeated Sen. Obama in the Pennsylvania primary, the Indiana contest began in earnest. Sen. Clinton held an event on the economy in Indianapolis; Sen. Obama led a town-hall meeting on the campus of Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany.

“I want to create the best education system in this country,” Sen. Obama told the crowd. “We’re going to invest in pre-K and close the achievement gap.”

Twice he criticized the No Child Left Behind Act—which has been a target for both Democrats—but his words were drowned out by thunderous applause, apparently by opponents of the 6-year-old federal education law.

Leah Thill, a 17-year-old student at Paoli High School in Paoli, Ind., who attended the speech, has signed up to volunteer for Sen. Obama. In the meantime, she’s working to sway an undecided voter closer to home—her mother, physician Yolanda Yoder, who accompanied her to the event.

“I vacillate back and forth between the candidates,” said Dr. Yoder, a Democrat. But she’s leaning to Sen. Obama, in part because of her daughter’s enthusiasm.

“She points out articles for me to read, and we discuss them,” Dr. Yoder said. “We’ve had some good conversations.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Young People Drawn to Aid in 2008 Race


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