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.
But even this may be under revision. Obama handily won the blue-collar vote in Wisconsion, a state with very similar demograghics to Ohio's.
Young people in Ohio are unemployed, disaffected and angry. That's not the crowd you might have seen surrounding Obama in those cute YouTube videos of his speeches. Those kids are middle-class, or soon will be after graduating from college and going to work in an investment bank.
For sure, they're not coming to jobs in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton or Youngstown. In fact, if any of those poster-waving kids standing behind Obama are from Ohio, odds are they're unlikely to return to their native state.
Residents living along the crescent of Lake Erie have long been wedded to the steel-and-auto industries, which used to promise high school graduates a middle-class life so long as they had a strong back and the stomach for hard work. In the middle and southern regions, Ohioans cling to a farm economy that works best when young people trade school books in the classroom for tractors in the field. In either case, a nimble mind, honed by bow-tie wearing professors, strikes many Ohioans as effete and superfluous.
Evidence that such attitudes exists can be seen indirectly, by the relatively low rate of college attendance among Ohio youths and the high number of young people who leave the state every year in search of opportunities elsewhere.
In his State of the State address last year, Gov. Ted Strickland sounded an alarm over the fact that Ohio ranked 37th in producing college graduates. He also set an ambitious goal – well, ambitious for Ohio – to increase the number of state residents with a college degree by 230,000 and to improve the college graduation rate for those who start college by 20 percent over the next decade.
This may be bad news for Obama and a potential gold mine for Clinton's working-class-themed campaign. So Obama can't continue to do what has worked in other, highly educated states. He needs a different strategy to win in Ohio.
Here's a suggestion: Team Obama might consider targeting the state's cosmetology academies, the truck-driving schools, medical assistant storefronts and home day-care places and be-a-model-or-just-look-like-one trade schools.
Young people in these places are this campaign's stealth voters. If Obama can get them excited and cheering, then Ohio may be his for the taking.
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.