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Youth, Civic Engagement and the 2008 Election

The kickoff event for the Berkman@10 conference was held at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics on Civic Engagement and the Youth Vote in 2008. A panel led by the Berkman Center’s John Palfrey began with questions to the panel about how youth are involved in the 2008 campaign, what is the trajectory, what is the narrative of this campaign, and is this a watershed moment for civic engagement or is it just a temporary blip on the radar screen? So, are more youth involved or not?

Ari Melber, a blogger for The Nation’s campaign blog put the 2008 election into historic context. He noted the ongoing discussion comparing youth involvement in politics during the Vietnam War, when it was at its high point, to today. Ari rattled off some impressive statistics that you may want to check on the transcript before repeating, but the take away is that we are not at the level we were at in the Vietnam era, however there is a clear and significant spike in youth involvement today compared to 2004. On the Democratic side, we’ve seen a 90% increase in voters under 30 voting in primaries. He can’t say if it is a long-term shift, but their impact is certainly being felt. Starting in Iowa, the under 30 voters have turned the tide for Obama—if there wasn’t an increased turnout of the youth vote, Edward would have won. That trend has continued in other states, with Obama wining the youth vote in something like 22 of 33 states—including Clinton’s home state of New York.

John next turned to Jesse Dylan, founder of HOPEACTCHANGE and Director/Executive Producer of the “Yes we can” video. Interestingly, he came late to Obama, and before that was leaning towards Ron Paul. The speech in South Carolina is what turned him into and Obama supporter. He noted that the video was turned around in just two days, and he would have viewed it as a success if just 10,000 people had viewed it. He highlighted the importance of story and narrative for engaging people and bringing them into the political process, and feels that video is the easiest medium to do that in, which is why we are seeing the importance of it in this election cycle.

Wess Hill of HOPEACTCHANGE echoed this theme when he said that he believes the Obama speech in South Carolina struck a chord with so many people because it captured the story of the US—from early pioneers to Latinos and other immigrants trying to achieve the American dream. He has no empirical evidence, but feels the “Yes We Can” video lets people connect to that idea.

Ari Melber also noted that the Internet allows a new way to engage in politics. The old metrics are simply “do you vote,” “do you volunteer for a campaign,” “do you write letters to the editor,” but these are pretty limiting for measuring engagement. Now the way to engage in politics is much more varied and rich. Our empirical methods do not seem to accurately measure the type of activism we are seeing—such as comments on a blog or response to YouTube videos. Ari argued that there may be also be a gateway drug quality to these videos, that then get youth to joing Facebook groups, contribute online or otherwise get involved in campaigns.

Jeff Frazee was the National Youth Coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 Campaign. He discussed how Facebook was the primary platform for the campaign, but that it has lots of limitations—for example once 1000 members join a group mass communication to the group is no longer permitted. The Ron Paul campaign did not have significant resources to throw at technology. For all the campaigns online success, including organizing and fundraising, Jeff felt that the campaigns achievements were more due to Ron Paul’s message, and that he had the right voting record on issues like the War in Iraq and small government.

Ari countered that Ron Paul’s success was not just message, but also that supporters could be part of a movement. Creative initiatives like the campaigns money bombs were collective, bottom up process.

The group closed with a discussion of what the narrative will be in 2012 and what interventions should be made.
Jesse Dylan believes it will be that individuals can do amazing things because costs are so low—you do not need money to reach an audience. This is important for independents. Focusing on youth is a red herring. They are more in the slipstream now, but the use of technology is going to become more mainstream.

Ari argued that the narrative is that ‘counter culture’ is the culture. We used to be told what is right, who to support, etc. However, the ‘experts’ are mostly wrong this cycle. Projections by insider politics ‘talking heads’ have been wrong. Ron Paul was not fringe and Clinton’s nomination was not inevitable. The media has failed in many ways. So people are ready to engage politics and campaigns on their own terms.

For Jeff, the narrative for politics and technology is that it lowers barrier to entry so individuals have the chance to put their ideas out there and see if they go viral. His advice is to open campaigns to ideas of their individual supporters, and to make use of the best ones.

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4 Responses to “Youth, Civic Engagement and the 2008 Election”

  1. Patrick Says:

    Does anyone have insight on how technology and politics are being played out in other countries? Are there cultural sensitivities? I’m especially interested in Poland.

  2. idteam Says:

    check out our three case studies on the Iranian blogosphere:;

    The Orange Revolution in Ukraine–;

    and OhmyNews in the 2002 South Korean presidential election.

    Future case studies on foreign language blogospheres, Burma, post-election violence in Kenya, e-voting and e-democracy in Switzerland coming soon.

    All publications are available on the website and on the Research sidebar on the blog.

  3. Patrick Says:

    idteam, thanks for the links.

    One more question – does anyone have links for other lectures regarding the youth vote, similar to the Harvard lecture? I’m not interested in published studies as much as discussions and lectures.

  4. » Web Campaigns, Online Participation and Deliberative Democracy I&D Blog Says:

    […] the Ron Paul campaign, which used Facebook as their primary online organizing tool–as we discussed last month at the Institute of Politics. And it will be interesting to see how John McCain harnesses […]