Less Merlot, More Meatloaf

What Obama needs to win Ohio.

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If Sen. Barack Obama harbors any hope of winning the Ohio Democratic primary, he will have to flip the script on his so-far successful formula.

In most of his primary and caucus victories, Obama relied on the energy and excitement of college kids to build a movement-like crusade. The settings for his stump speeches have been compared to concerts ("cue Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life"), conducted in huge university stadiums with tens of thousands of screaming, placard-waving kids. No wonder they often describe Obama as a "rock star."

There's a new term for these young people, who are black, white and increasingly mixed-race, like the candidate himself -- "Millennials." They were born after 1982 and weaned on the early 21st Century's toxic blame-the-other-guy politics. For all of their lives, only dysfunctional Clintons or war-mongering Bushes have lived in the White House. Pollsters say Millennials love Obama's forward-looking message of hope.

Maybe. But what's undeniably clear is that as they now reach voting age, young people are eager to put their mark on society. A generational shift is occurring right before our eyes.

Unlike their Gen X, Y and Z counterparts, Millennials are a politically engaged tidal wave about to wash over the land. Consider, for example, the increase in the number of 18-to-29-year-old primary voters in 2000 and 2008: it doubled in Massachusetts, tripled in Georgia, Oklahoma and Missouri, and quadrupled in Tennessee. Experts say most, but not all, of them are responding to Obama's siren song.

While Obama's youth-must-be-served-first strategy has worked wonders in the early primaries and caucuses, it's not likely to be as easy on March 4 in Ohio. There just aren't enough college-attending and politically engaged voters to spread Obamamania across the Buckeye State. Only about 18 percent of the 18-to-29-year-old Ohioans attend college; nationwide the figure is 22 percent.

To win in Ohio, the Obama campaign must herd and corral the hardest group of youths roaming an economically declining state: Working-class, non-college-educated young people. This is a daunting task because politicians don't have an easy, one-stop-shopping approach to capturing their votes. Obama's recent union endorsements will help, particularly the support of the powerful Teamsters, but they don't solve the whole problem.

If young people aren't on a college campus, pols behave as if they don't exist, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning at the University of Maryland. "Politicians have a terrible tendency to equate young people with college students," he said. "Only about half of all Americans go to college, but (candidates) think it's easier to get the college kids' votes and they ignore all the other young people."

Predictably, young people who don't attend college are reluctant voters. By Levine's calculations, 59 percent of college students voted for a presidential candidate in 2004, compared to 34 percent of non-college attending young people.

Such figures are amplified in Ohio, suggesting a bigger political challenge for Obama than for his rival Sen. Hillary Clinton. While college students have demonstrated a strong tilt toward Obama, the conventional wisdom is that Clinton is more formidable among blue-collar and low-income youths, who go directly into the basement of the state's job market.